There is tremendous power in using your voice. For Cecil Baldwin, that is particularly true. The renowned performer has been lending his voice to one of iTunes’s most popular podcasts, Welcome to Night Vale, which recently celebrated its 333rd performance in a six-year run. For this HIV-positive actor and activist, that night was one of his proudest moments.
“The performance was quite awe-inspiring,” Baldwin reflects. The show itself has toured 23 states and 17 countries, and sold over 250,000 tickets.
But Baldwin says, his sense of achievement about Night Vale pales in comparison to the pride he felt when he was invited to speak at his alma mater about “how my career as an actor was shaped by being an HIV-positive gay man, who was willing to say so in a public forum.”
But the journey of getting to that day last year didn’t happen overnight. The 39-year-old Brooklynite discovered he was HIV-positive in 2007, soon after moving to New York City. At the time, he knew nothing about antiretrovirals or other resources available, but with the support of friends he made in the N.Y.C. theater scene, he quickly rectified that to the point where he would soon be the one passing on HIV knowledge.
After all, “education is the most powerful weapon we have,” says Baldwin, explaining that HIV “attacks the body, but the stigma against those people with HIV… is a disease of society. The language we use in reference to HIV and AIDS and our sexual health and wellbeing is just as important as any medication, and deserves the same amount of scrutiny.”
Baldwin argues, “Being honest and open with an individual takes far more bravery than marching in a rally, and the after-effects will last far longer. As hard as we fight for the rights of people with HIV [or] AIDS within our own community, we must fight 10 times harder for the rights of people with HIV [or] AIDS worldwide.”
Baldwin has seen enormous success and support as a well-known figure who is out and proud with his queerness and HIV status. But he believes that as a culture we need to “keep the conversation going. Keep the information flowing. Keep innovating, and uplifting stories of simple innovations that make life with HIV or AIDS better, easier, and more practical.”
He also urges activists to, “find points of intersectionality. Yes, continue the struggle to end HIV, but also for women with HIV, black women with HIV, trans black women with HIV, Midwestern trans black women with HIV. No matter who you are or how you came to HIV, you are deserving of love and respect, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
One of the ways we can add more visibility, Baldwin suggests, is by creating a supportive environment for other public figures to come out with their status, especially in TV, film, and “in the field of sports, politics, business, the military, agriculture, technology, and industry.” He says, “or else all the dignity and poise of those artists and performers will fade away unless representatives from all walks of life take up the fight.”
Having role models for young and newly diagnosed folks is something Baldwin is specifically focusing on. He admits it was mentors that helped guide him to mental and physical health, and he wants to make sure others have that as well.
Looking back, he would offer sound advice to his younger self: “You are a weirdo,” he quips. “However, there is great power in being a weirdo — and if you can love yourself a little more and doubt yourself a lot less, the sooner you will realize that there are a lot more weirdos in this world than you ever dreamed possible.”