Tituss Burgess is changing television on the Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt even though his character says, “I can’t fix America.”
Off-screen, Burgess works to change the world, including his upcoming appearance as the keynote speaker at the World AIDS Day 2018 luncheon in Houston.
The November 30 event’s tagline is “It’s more than a luncheon, it’s World AIDS Day.”
Burgess has participated in numerous HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns because the cause is so important to him.
“Visibility is everything,” he tells OutSmart. “If you don’t know something exists, you can’t have the full extent of information. I feel a personal responsibility to inform others and make them aware of an issue that my community—and so many other communities across the world—deal with on a daily basis. Awareness is the only cure for ignorance.”
At the luncheon, to be held in The Ballroom at Bayou Place, Burgess will hear how the University of Houston Honors College is performing groundbreaking outreach work in communities with high HIV transmission rates. The school’s effort will be honored as the 2018 Shelby Hodge Vision Award recipient.
Burgess is a native of Athens, Georgia, who has played roles originally performed by women (such as The Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods) and white men (such as Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls) before Tina Fey cast him as D’Fwan, a part with just one line, on Fey’s acclaimed NBC-TV series 30 Rock. Fey was so impressed with Burgess that she brought him back in three more episodes as the gay hairdresser to Sherri Shepherd as Angie Jordan.
Next, Fey created the character of Titus (with one “s”) Andromedon for Burgess to play on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which stars Ellie Kemper. They play roommates in New York City, where Burgess also lives. His character is considered groundbreaking because TV audiences had never seen an outspoken, overweight, narcissistic, out black man portrayed with such dignity.
Burgess has been rewarded with four consecutive nominations for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. In addition to other nods and some awards he’s won, Burgess feels he’s been handed a responsibility to parlay his fame as an openly LGBTQ actor into a selfless spokesman for societal progress.
“In this country today, so many of our rights are being threatened,” he says. “It is necessary for each and every minority to be fully themselves and be as proud and visible as possible. We have to let people know that we’ve always been here, and we will always be here. There is no discussion—we deserve the same rights as any other Americans, period. I will continue to live my truth each and every day.”
As for his dream role, Burgess says, “It has not been written yet.”
Sponsors of the World AIDS Day 2018 event in Houston will have the opportunity to meet Burgess at an underwriter party the evening before the luncheon. Also, a limited number of individual tickets will be available for the underwriter party at $100 each. The underwriter party will take place on Thursday, November 29, 6–8 p.m. at CASA Houston, 2800 Kirby Dr., Suite B100.
CASA co-owners Jacob Sudhoff and Jerry Hooker are co-chairs of the luncheon, which will benefit the preventative and stabilizing services provided by AIDS Foundation Houston and the comprehensive community healthcare provided by Avenue 360 Health & Wellness, both of which serve to normalize HIV prevention and treatment.
The annual Shelby Hodge Vision Award, which recognizes those who demonstrate extraordinary vision in addressing HIV/AIDS, will be accepted at this year’s luncheon by UH Honors College research assistant professor Dan Price.
“This award recognizes a paradigm shift in how we think about educating communities about HIV and how we drive behavioral changes in those communities,” Price says. “I came to embrace the more human connection to healthcare through community health workers (CHWs) after seeing that, over the past 20 years, what was being done wasn’t working, or it only moved the needle one or two percent.”
In contrast, says Price, CHWs “are very good at driving traffic” toward information about HIV. “They are trained, but they don’t go into a community as a medical doctor wearing a white jacket. They go in and engage people and direct them as far as where to go to get information. We discovered that you don’t lead people with expertise; you lead them by engagement.”
Over the next few years, the UH program hopes to hire dozens of CHWs to act as independent contractors, making human connections at the community level and leading people to healthcare technology and expertise.
Houston ranks 11th in the nation for new HIV transmissions, and more than 26 percent of those new transmissions will be diagnosed with AIDS, according to AIDS Foundation Houston. In addition, there are 29,643 people living with HIV in Houston/Harris County.
World AIDS Day is also commemorated as a day to remember community members and loved ones we have lost to AIDS.
What: Houston World AIDS Day Luncheon
When: 11:30 a.m., November 30
Where: The Ballroom at Bayou Place, 500 Texas Avenue
Tickets and info: AIDSHelp.org
This article appears in the November 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.