It's hard to believe it's been 37 years since Dionne Warwick and friends Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder recorded their hit charity single, "That's What Friends Are For."
The New Jersey-born singer was one of the first celebrities to publicly announce her support to combat HIV in the 1980s. The song generated over $3 million for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and heralded a new era of celebrity-driven fundraising and activism.
In recent years, the former Plus cover star's advocacy has continued in communities like Harlem, the site of her early gigs. In 2017, for International Women's Day, the singer delivered a powerful PSA to bring awareness that women accounted for 20 percent of new HIV diagnoses every year.
"Despite remarkable progress in the fight against HIV, women account for almost 20 percent of the estimated 45,000 new HIV infections in the United States each year," Warwick said in the video (below). "African-American women account for an alarming 62 percent of new HIV infections [among women]. We must continue to protect ourselves. If you are sexually active, no matter what your age, please practice safe sex and get texted for HIV."
Recently, Warwick gave an interview with Pride Source where she touched on her LGBTQ fans, as well as the early years of the HIV epidemic. Read some of the exerpts below:
You stood up for the LGBTQ community when we needed you most, in a time when many influential names did not take that step. You lost many people who were close to you to AIDS, including your valet. How do you reflect on that time, and how personally affected were you?
I was not the only one personally affected. I think everybody that ever heard that word “HIV/AIDS” was affected, not necessarily directly but indirectly. Losing people for any reason is not an easy thing to be a part of, but when you lose people to something (where something) can be done about it then it becomes another kind of situation. I’ve always believed what my grandfather told me at a very, very tender age: that we were all put here to be of service to each other. We all have got to get our heads out of the sand and take a good look around us and say, “Enough.”
Because of you, Ronald Reagan said “AIDS” for the first time, you’ve said. Why did you decide to challenge Ronald Reagan?
Basically he appointed me the United States Ambassador of Health and my mandate, self-imposed basically, was the AIDS issue because that was what was prevalent at that time. And he just did not want to say that word for some reason. I hadn’t a clue as to why. But when I did a press conference and he was there, I prodded him into saying the word. I think it was time for him to fess up and know that the community that was suffering from this disease should be addressed by someone who meant something to all people and being the President of the United States he had an obligation to do so.
You’ve had a special relationship with the LGBTQ community for decades. Is that closeness to the gay community something that came out of that tragic period or did it start before?
Apparently it had started before, when I was singing gospel music as a teenager. The young man who played piano for our group was gay, but that was his lifestyle, that’s what he chose as a lifestyle. Who am I to judge him? He didn’t judge me. So, you know, everybody does what is satisfying to them to do, and I let you live your life and you allow me to live mine.
You come from a family who seems divided on accepting the LGBTQ community: the Houston family has not been the most outspoken allies of the community and have, in fact, expressed some homophobia over the years.
Well, yeah. That’s their way of dealing with it. I can’t speak for that, everybody approaches any kind of a situation in different manners, so I can only speak for myself.
What was your relationship like with your gay church friend? You were close, I imagine.
Oh yeah. He was wonderful to be around, and could play a piano like nobody else. He was a human being, OK – that’s the way I look at people. I can’t judge you for your preference – that’s your choice, not mine. You gotta be who you are and I’ve gotta be who I am and that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.
You say “preference” and “lifestyle,” and I know some people still use both of those words. But a lot of gay people think they were born this way, that it wasn’t a chosen lifestyle or a preference. Do you think a gay person could be born gay?
Absolutely. It’s not only the way you’re born, it’s the lifestyle you’ve chosen to live and that’s your choice. I can’t define what it means or how it happens or why it happens or when it happens. It just is. I look at it that way.
What has the LGBTQ community’s loyalty all these years meant to you?
It’s absolutely wonderful to know that people generally still appreciate what I do and your love and care for me means an awful lot to me and I certainly appreciate it.