Leaving while the Band Plays On....
It was in late 1982, sitting in my tiny apartment when the phone rang. It was the first time I heard anything about a new unknown afflication that was sickening Gay men. I was 25 and living with my boyfriend Steve in Columbus, Ohio, just blocks south of the OSU campus. I was the Executive Director of the Stonewall Union, Central Ohio's gay lesbian rights organization and we were fighting for a human rights ordinance in Columbus, and I was organizing the GLBT community across the city.
They had no name for the malady that was killng homosexuals, hemophiliacs, hatian immigrants, and heroin addicts in the big coastal cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Like millions of other Americans, I dismissed the issue as something that couldn't be true or would just go away. Soon, at least among the affected groups, we would learn the harsh truth.
I would soon be seduced to move to Detroit, where I became the new Executive Director of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights (MOHR). The Stonewall group had become very successful, well known, and was putting on giant state-wide gay pride parades. MOHR hired me to Michigan and plopped me down in Palmer Park, where I was told the Gay community was centered.
I had no choice but to become well versed in the latest information and updates on GRID, or gay related immunodeficiency disease, later named AIDS. By 1986, we were developing safe sex workshops that we took on the road, travelling to every major city and university in Michigan. MOHR got the first state funds allocated to AIDS, helping fund the creation of the Special Office on AIDS Prevention, later named HAPIS. We created the first prevention posters (the LIfeguard campaign) and began distributing condoms by the tens of thousands.
MOHR went through some board dysfunction, as groups sometime do, and I moved over to the Special Office on AIDS Prevention at the Michigan Department of Community Health in 1987 where I was to work and advise for fifteen years. I also founded MAPP in the summer of 1988, sitting around a swimming pool - with Richard Villaire and two other associates.
I lost a lot of friends and associates to AIDS. I stopped counting when the number reached 44, about a decade ago.
As I finally leave the HIV/AIDS arena, moving on to what will become my third career, I realize what a truly inspiring and spirited occupation I had the pleasure in which to create and participate. For twenty-two years, I got to travel the state and large swaths of the country, meeting many caring and creative people. I got to teach safer sex and sexuality in general to tens of thousands of college and high school students. I had the pleasure of hiring and working with dozens of the most honest, hard-working, and dedicated people at the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project (MAPP). And during this time I helped raise - through government agencies, grants, and fundraising events, in excess of $12 million for the fight against HIV/AIDS.
It has gotten tougher lately,as bureaucracies strangle creativity, funding becomes more scarce, and new crises develop, Young people are still denied real life health and sex education. The schools still bow to homophobia and fear. Government institutionalizes the epidemic and stifles
grass roots community efforts with layers of civil service employees, unending reports and RFP's. But each year,new young people rise to the challenge and become the next generation of soldiers fighting the scourge that is the world-wide AIDS pandemic.
As I make room for the next generation and prepare to move into full-time political work, local government policiy, and other consulting, I can look back with satisfaction and know that we did manage to reduce the numbers, alleviate the suffering, and comfort those who lost so much. My favorite story is from a couple of years ago. A man approached me in a club in Flint, Michigan. He appeared to be in his late 30's or early 40's. And he said to me..."You saved my life. I heard you speak when I was 18 and a college student, you taught us about safe sex and I always followed what you said."
Over the years, I was picketed by homophobes in Jackson and Ferndale. I stayed in inumerable hotel rooms around the state, and sat through many long meetings and presentations. I was even attacked in the early 90's by a disgruntled bath house owner upset with my lobbying against unregulated drug and sex activity in some of the Detroit baths. I wouldn't trade any of those experiences. My only regret is that today young gay men and boys, some as young as 17, are still at high risk for HIV infection. Because of those young men and others, I will always support the work that someday will make that cease to happen. The mission remains.