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Jean Smart Recalls How the 'Painful Experience' of Losing Her Friend to AIDS Inspired Her to Advocate for Change

The 'Hacks' star also spoke about marginalized groups, noting how "many who are viewed as flawed are really the strongest and bravest among us," while accepting the National Equity Award at Human Rights Campaign Dinner

<p>Kevin Winter/Getty</p> Jean Smart speaks onstage during the 2024 Human Rights Campaign dinner

Kevin Winter/Getty

Jean Smart speaks onstage during the 2024 Human Rights Campaign dinner

Jean Smart is keeping her late friend's memory at the forefront as she advocates for a better — and more accepting — world.

On Saturday, the Hacks star was awarded the National Equality Award for her ongoing support of the LGBTQ+ community at the Human Rights Campaign's annual Los Angeles Dinner.

To kick off her speech, the 72-year-old actress applauded other honorees and attendees, such as Sterling K. Brown and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, before explaining that it felt "incredible" to be "in the company" of names like Judy Garland and Cher. She also credited her first Broadway production of Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, set in a Lesbian beach community, as one that ultimately started her career.

"Women in the gay community who were starved for a story like this, they could see themselves in a positive light," Smart said. "And they came to see the show six, eight, ten, twelve times, even more. I have to admit, at that point in my life I had never known a gay woman, or so I thought. Of course I had, I just didn't know that I knew them."

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Smart then described how she "personally learned about gay life through some very painful experiences," and detailed a friendship she had with an actor named Jimmy while in her 20s, when they both lived in New York City.

"When I was cast on Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, he was very happy for me but he was worried about my social life," she said. "He would walk me to the theater most evenings, where there was always a crowd of gay women waiting to buy tickets and he would make a huge show of loudly wishing me, 'Have a good show honey,' before planting a huge kiss on my lips. A couple years later, I moved to L.A. to do a series but we always stayed in touch."

Smart eventually discovered that her friend had Tuberculosis, and "told everyone he knew that he had TB after he was diagnosed with AIDS." When she visited him the hospital, as he had "not long to live," Smart said Jimmy wasn't visited by his mother at all, and rarely by his younger sister.

"I thought how is that possible? How? I sat with him and I held his hand. He was barely conscious and he was on oxygen. And I really don't think he knew that I was there," Smart said. "Later, I learned from his dear friend that after I left, he whispered, 'I feel so loved.' And he was the first person I knew who died from AIDS, so shocking."

<p>Kevin Winter/Getty</p> Jean Smart speaks onstage during the 2024 Human Rights Campaign dinner

Kevin Winter/Getty

Jean Smart speaks onstage during the 2024 Human Rights Campaign dinner

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After telling the emotional story, Smart added that "so many religions, so many ethnicities and people who are seen as different are persecuted, like people in the LGBTQ+ community."

"And what is ironic is that traits that are considered weaknesses are often signs of great heroism. Many who are viewed as flawed are really the strongest and bravest among us," she said. "The level of self knowledge and personal strength that it takes to fight for yourself, especially if no one else will, is beyond measuring."

"To fight the fear and ignorance of an uneducated world takes enormous self love. I'm close to people who are gay, individuals who identify as transgender, and some who are wherever they place themselves on the queer spectrum," Smart added. "And in a world where children are starving and dying because of war, it seems obscene beyond understanding that any of us should be concerned with anyone else's sexuality."

When referring to children, the Hacks actress emphasized that "knowledge is power" and that if kids "interact with people who are different from them, they will be unable to turn away from those same people when they see them being squashed or threatened."

She then closed her speech by encouraging listeners to be "patient," "tolerant," "kind" and to vote.

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Also during Sunday's dinner, Biden offered a keynote speech, Brown earned the Ally for Equality Award, and other special guests including Tariq Trotter of The Roots shared words of their own.

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