Laverne Cox Recalls 'Trauma' of Watching Loved Ones Die of HIV/AIDS and Wondering, 'Am I Next?'

The actress and activist has teamed up with Band-Aid and RED for World AIDS Day, which falls on Sunday, Dec. 1

Laverne Cox
Photo: Michael Simon/startraksphoto

This World AIDS Day, red is the new black for Laverne Cox.

Reflecting on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Orange Is the New Black actress, 47, tells PEOPLE she thinks it is “insane” that AIDS-related illnesses are still killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year, despite being preventable. That’s why she’s teamed up with Band-Aid and RED to fight for the cause.

“It’s intense that in 2019, AIDS is still an issue in a lot of parts of the world, that we have new transmissions every year,” Cox tells PEOPLE. “It’s insane to me when we can prevent it.”

The issue is personal for Cox, who, while HIV-negative, says the disease has been a reality for her throughout her life. When Cox was a child — and medications that now help people with HIV live longer did not yet exist — she saw two of her mother’s Black gay friends become HIV-positive and die.

She experienced loss again when a close friend she’d met while working at a New York City coffee shop became HIV-positive, and “deteriorate[d] mentally and physically” before her eyes prior to dying — something she says was “insanely traumatizing.”

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox.

“I know so many people who are living with HIV/AIDS and unfortunately far too many people who we’ve lost to the disease,” she says. “And there’s still a really crazy stigma around HIV/AIDS.”

That stigma and subsequent fear hasn’t subsided for Cox, who is also a prominent transgender activist.

“I think people of a certain age have this trauma of like, watching people we know and love die and then the trauma of that, and the trauma of like, ‘Am I next?’ ” she says.

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With that in mind, Cox boarded Band-Aid’s campaign in collaboration with RED, which is selling red bandages and donating 20 cents from each purchase to the “U.S. Fund for the Global Fund to support and fund Global Fund programs for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa,” according to the campaign’s website. That 20 cents will cover the cost of one day’s worth of antiretroviral medication for someone in the region.

“What is so beautiful about what Johnson & Johnson and RED and Band-Aid are doing is that so much of this work is about educating people, providing medication, [but] then they’re also working to find a cure,” Cox explains. “These things have to go hand in hand if we really want to do the work of fighting HIV/AIDS globally.”

Johnson & Johnson announced in July that it’ll launch the Mosaico trial, the “second efficacy study to test Janssen [Pharmaceutical Company]’s mosaic-based vaccine concept, which is designed with the goal of protecting against a wide range of HIV-1 strains” responsible for HIV/AIDS.

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox. Michael Simon/startraksphoto

The trial will focus on gay men and transgender people across North America, South America and Europe, with initial results expected in 2023.

Though Cox is openly HIV-negative, she tells PEOPLE it’s still necessary to discuss your status as a means of alleviating the stigma that surrounds the topic.

“I think so often in my experience as a Black trans woman, so often it’s assumed that I’m HIV-positive,” she says. “Like when someone knows I’m trans, the conversation around HIV/AIDS comes up in a way when they don’t know I’m trans, it doesn’t come up. Again, it’s these layers of stigma, and these are things we internalize.”

She continues, “We have to talk about stigma and shame directly to really have people understand that it’s something that we have to actively fight against.”

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