Cumming to Columbus

The first person I knew who died from AIDS was my high school BFF’s brother. When Jason was in the last bits of his life, she called me here in Ohio and asked me to come back to D.C. because she was sad and scared.

Before then, AIDS was scary, but AIDS was ‘over there.’ It was on the cover of all the magazines, there were demonstrations, ACT UP was staging die-ins; yet, for me, there was no personal connection, no tears of my own. When I went back to Washington, Jason was skeletal, needed help to use the bathroom, and couldn’t eat on his own. This vibrant figure of my youth, who practiced running in stilettos on the driveway in anticipation of D.C.’s annual high-heeled bartender street race much to our delight, was lying in his Capitol Hill bed, a stick figure with a familiar grin.

Suddenly, AIDS was right here, in my house so to speak. And then more people started dying—people I knew, artists I admired, ballet dancers I trained with—and no one was doing anything, except the gay community itself, and its allies. There were marches, demonstrations, civil disobedience—police officers guarding the streets wearing plastic gloves because they were scared to touch anyone. The fear was staggering. We went from free love to possibly paying with our lives. As we all know, eventually, medicinal progress was made, being diagnosed with HIV stopped being a death sentence, and AIDS faded into the cultural background.

Actor Alan Cumming saw his first AIDS-related death in the mid-’80s.

“For me, it was someone from Glasgow,” he recalled. “It was shocking.”

The faces of HIV/AIDS aren’t as shocking today, leading some to even wonder why we even need an AIDS Walk in this day and age. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” emphasized Cummings, calling from somewhere in the Catskills. “It is important to keep AIDS in the public discourse; the younger generation sees it as not a threat.” The actor, familiar to many from The Good Wife and the X-Men films, explains that infection rates are growing most alarmingly amongst young people.

“There is not a cure,” he said. “The education about AIDS is dismal … it’s the government’s fault for getting complacent.”

The majority of new infections in Franklin County—which already leads the state in infection rates—are occurring in people ages 13 to 29, according to the AIDS Resource Center.

“People aren’t scared of HIV/AIDS like they used to be,” he said. “There is a whole generation of missing people, people who aren’t here. We still have a long way to go and, yes, the fact is there are drugs that allow people to live longer, but it is not a cure.”

Cumming is a Renaissance man living in the digital age. Actor, author, fashion icon, and activist, he’s won awards from the Tony to an Independent Spirit, to the Human Rights Campaign’s Humanitarian Award. Of all the perks and swag that comes with the being famous package, Cumming’s favorite is using his recognition to do good out in the world.

“I have fun doing this—it’s not a chore,” he said. “I feel it’s my duty… I have a voice, I have a platform, I can actually take two days out my life to come there and change lives, change minds.”

In addition to his work on stage and screen, Cumming published a memoir, Not My Father’s Son, about growing up with abuse and deep trenches of family secrets. Between his frank talk about his childhood and his work to eliminate homophobia, the actor has inspired many. “Just by being myself, just being me, I’m able to inspire people,” he said. “People have come up to me, talking about coming out to their parents, or about these issues with family, I get really overwhelmed. It’s means much more to me than any acting accolades.” 

“Actors are always at the center, telling people what’s going on,” he explained. “A lot of people who have bigger platforms than mine, they could do so much, but getting involved with social or political issues can be dangerous.”

This spring’s visit will be Cumming’s first to Columbus, although he has had taste of the Buckeye state via Cleveland.

“The people in Ohio are lovely and warm and open,” he said. “And this is a great thing to do—the community coming together to help people with HIV. I’m coming to Ohio to help educate people. This is an easily avoidable disease. These events, AIDS Walks, are a really good idea to raise awareness and I have fun doing them.”


This year’s Robert J. Fass Memorial AIDS Walk Central Ohio will step off from McFerson Commons Park in downtown Columbus on April 16. It is the largest HIV/AIDS awareness event in the state. The Walk benefits the AIDS Resource Center Ohio, Camp Sunrise, Nationwide Children’s Hospital FACES Program, The Ohio AIDS Coalition, and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center AIDS Clinical Trials Unit. Those who raise $1000 or more will have the chance to meet Alan Cumming at the Grand Walker Breakfast the morning of the event. For information, visit aidswalkohio.com.

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