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The Insecure star learned about the virus through frank conversations with his family

By Julie Mazziotta
February 05, 2019 12:57 PM
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NAACP Image Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 11 Feb 2017
Credit: Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Jay Ellis was “fortunate” to grow up in a family that wasn’t afraid to have frank conversations about tough topics, including HIV/AIDS. But he knows that isn’t true for many people, and that’s part of why he’s dedicated to spreading awareness of the virus and ending the stigma that still persists.

Ellis, who plays the fan-favorite Lawrence on HBO’s Insecure, had a great-uncle who died of AIDS in the 90s, and another family member who has lived with HIV since the late 90s.

“It’s always been something that’s been around my family and been a conversation,” he tells PEOPLE.

Though Ellis, 37, admits that he didn’t understand what it was at first.

“When I found out about it I was 10 years old and I think it wasn’t until I was a little bit older — in high school about to graduate — when my other family member contracted HIV, and I think that was the first time I actually understood what was going on,” he says. “I was like, oh, now I understand what my great-uncle died from.”

But his family stepped in to fill in the blanks.

“There were a lot of questions, and, fortunately, I have a family that talks about things — and there are a lot of families that don’t,” he says. “Because of that I was able to learn firsthand what was going on, even though I didn’t understand it the first time around.”

Now Ellis, with the help of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, travels to colleges and high schools to teach students about HIV and AIDS, and work on reducing the stigma.

“AIDS isn’t necessarily on the front page like it was in the 80s and 90s when millions of people were dying, so I think it’s interesting that in some ways the conversation has waned, and in some ways the conversation has grown,” he says. “Hearing young people talk about it, though it isn’t on the front page anymore, is where I go, ‘Oh, this conversation is working. They’re spreading the message and having the conversation with their peers.’ “

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Ellis, who is on amfAR’s Board of Trustees, is also passionate about spreading awareness because HIV “largely and disproportionately affects African-Americans in this country.”

“It’s definitely everywhere, and the conversation is less prevalent in Black communities, and I think it’s stigma,” he says. “There’s this stigma of how you contracted it and what it means to have it and how you can give it to someone else. I think that when we don’t allow ourselves to have these conversations, all based on stigma and fear and not having the proper educational resources behind us, we end up crippling the community and youth because we don’t give them the information that they need to know about living a safe and healthy life.”

Ellis has worked with amfAR for several years now, and he’s encouraged by how many young people understand more about the virus and aren’t afraid to speak openly about it. But he wants to do more in the Black community.

“I think one of the things that has not changed, to be honest with you, is the alarmingly high rate that African-Americans contract HIV,” he says. “We still account, at this point, for about half of all new cases of HIV. I’m still out there having that conversation. It’s improved, but it hasn’t been a big drop. It’s still far too high.”

But Ellis is confident that amfAR will reach its goal of a scientific basis of a cure by 2020.

“We have all the research from doctors and scientists all around the world who are communicating together and working on a cure,” he says. “I think we’re going to be the generation that sees a cure for sure.”