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'We Didn't Understand What it Was': Jane Lynch on Working in Theater During the AIDS Crisis

Peabody Awards

You might know Jane Lynch from her work on Glee as the antagonistic gym teacher, Sue Sylvester. Or maybe you know her from one of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary films like Best in Show or A Mighty Wind. Or maybe you've seen her in The Forty-Year-Old VirginTwo and a Half Men, Arrested Development, Weeds... The list could go on and on. 

Although she's known for these comedic performances, Lynch is now playing a more serious role as the honorary chair for the 28th annual AIDS Walk Wisconsin & 5K Run. Lynch was working in theater during the height of the AIDS crisis, at a time when health officials were uncertain of what caused the syndrome. 

She explains, "We didn't know what was happening and tons of people died, people I knew, people - you know, everybody knew. Everybody was touched by this and it was so scary because we didn't understand what it was."

Lynch remembers working on a show with a director named Stuart White, who she says was a kind of father figure for her, despite the fact he was only in his 30's. 

"He had a cold the entire time we were rehearsing the play and he was like, 'I can't shake this cold and I'm tired,' and 'Ugh, God, this is the worst time for this to happen, I'm directing a play,' and 'Maybe it's allergies.' About 6 months later I heard he was dying and it was from that disease that nobody knew anything about what was killing all these gay men," she recalls. 

"We didn't know what was happening and tons of people died, people I knew, people - you know, everybody knew. Everybody was touched by this."

After that, she says things just got worse. "People just started dying - you know, friends and friends of friends. You're going to memorial after memorial and there was so much suffering, not just physically but emotionally there was so much suffering. And, you know, there was also the backlash of hate. It was a really tough time," she says. 

Although much more is known about it now, more than a million Americans are still living with HIV/AIDS. While therapies developed over the last couple decades have been able to keep many people alive, infection rates are once again rising in different parts of the country, especially among young men. 

"You know, you think you're going to live forever when you're 20 and so you're out there doing crazy stuff - and like, we all do. But we have to continue educating people, that this can kill you. And that's why I'm continuing to be part of the resistance, if you will," Lynch says. 

The 28th annual AIDS Walk Wisconsin & 5K Run will be Saturday, October 7 at Milwaukee's Summerfest Grounds. 

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.