Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tim Sweeney's Remarks at GMHC's 30th Anniversary Dinner

We are proud and delighted that Tim Sweeney returned to New York on April 18 to receive the award named in memory of Judith Peabody, one of his great allies and champions in the very critical years of his GMHC leadership. Below are his compelling and inspiring remarks.
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I am thrilled to be here in the company of so many dear friends and colleagues and recognized alongside the Rudin Family and Duane Reade.

I want to remember Judy Peabody, whose great heart, clear head and iron will touched so many lives.  I remember when my brother Mark had one of his first hospitalizations at New York Presbyterian.  His first night he was frightened, a bit discombobulated, anxious and chilled.  My brotherly care was falling short.  Judy appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, leaned into my brother and said, “Is there anything I can get you?” My brother had not really spoken to Judy before and like most of us on a first conversation with this stylish force was a bit tongue-tied.  He muttered, “Another blanket would be nice.” I hadn’t been able to get another blanket for love nor money.  Judy dashed out, came back in five minutes with a blank and said, “Here you are Mark. I have spoken with friends here and they will take care to watch out for you.” She said that with her famous steady gaze into my brother’s eyes, her short, tight smile and a kiss to both us as she was off to offer her care to another friend, colleague or stranger.

Compassion seemed to come naturally with Judy.  Compassion requires imagination—seeing ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  The greater the imagination, the greater the ability to empathize and see beyond our self and our limits.  To dream of what should be not what is.

The great gift and strength of GMHC has been to imagine a world where we have a vaccine and a cure for HIV, where healthcare (including mental health and substance abuse treatment) is universal and human rights embraced.  For 30 years tens of thousands of people—clients, volunteers, board members and donors—have come to this organization and put their collective imaginations to work, to dream of what should be not what is and create that world of which we dream.  You, we have confronted and overcome fear and stigma, invented prevention and care systems, played smart politics, acted up, held our leaders and institutions accountable and changed the course of this pandemic.  And we have so much more to get done.  GMHC must and will draw the best from us.

I started my LGBT advocacy 35 years ago.  I have been incredibly blessed to join up with so many inspirational colleagues, most mentoring me at some point along the way. My life’s work has taught me that compassion and imagination can go a very long way.  My journey has gone from no openly gay elected officials and then there was Harvey Milk and now 35 US Mayors, four openly gay US representatives and Tammy Baldwin on her way to the US Senate.  I remember fighting a California ballot initiative that would have banned gay people from teaching in public schools to now thousands of gay/straight alliances in high schools and middle schools across this country and the largest Day of Silence yet coming on Friday, April 20.  I remember filing an early legal case at Lambda trying to get the court to allow two elder men to adopt each other because they needed protection, god forbid they should get married, to marriage in this beautiful Empire State—and watch out Washington, Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and North Carolina you are up next.  I remember an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show with openly gay vets.  We were suing to get the Veteran’s Day Parade to let gay vets march.  We failed.  And now open and proud lesbian and gay service members protect our country.  I remember a Today Show appearance calling out HIV discrimination by insurance companies and being threatened with lawsuits to now a president and administration that passed a healthcare reform law that covers anyone with a pre-existing condition and then administratively ban discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity in state health insurance exchange activities.

So friends, dreams come true.  We have much to do.  The news headlines are enough to make you scream and run away to a distant island.  But the better path is to reach out to a new person, organization, cause.  Think anew about how we do our work.  Stretch our minds and imagine, open your hearts even more. Ever onward.  Thank you.
Tim’s biography reads like a 30-year history of the progressive LGBT movement and the fight against AIDS.   Since the very beginning of the epidemic, Tim served as the executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, successfully suing landlords in the nation’s first HIV discrimination case.  From 1986 to 1993, he was deputy director and then executive director of GMHC.  Under Tim’s leadership, GMHC formed a national coalition to press Washington to pass anti-discrimination laws and to secure passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Ryan White Care Act – two seminal pieces of legislation that are relied on to this day.

After his years of AIDS work, Tim turned to state organizing, serving as the deputy executive director for programs of the Empire State Pride Agenda and Foundation, where he helped to assure passage of New York State's anti-hate crimes law.  As program director of the Evelyn & Walter Hass, Jr. Fund's equality and justice and nonprofit leadership and governance programs in San Francisco, Tim helped build one of  America's largest funders of the LGBT movement.  Continuing in that tradition, Tim is now the president and chief executive officer of the Denver-based Gill Foundation, one of the nation's largest funders of LGBT equal rights work, which has invested more than $197 million across the country in support of equal rights for all Americans.

Monday, April 23, 2012

From Village to Village in NYC, Still Battling AIDS Stigma

by Marjorie Hill, PhD

This year, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the oldest HIV/AIDS service organization in the world, will commemorate 30th years.  Much has changed since the 1980s at the beginning of this global disaster.  As GMHC was forming, some of our first tasks were to care and advocate for people dying of AIDS.  Today, through the ongoing expansion of our services, we assist people living with HIV and AIDS, and help prevent new infections.  Living or dying, our mission has focused on the right to dignity.  We have counseled youth who carry profound shame for being HIV-positive.  We have yelled at rallies to stop blaming gay men for this disease, testified at hearings on housing discrimination against people living with AIDS, advocated for more funding to address the needs of women who live in silence with HIV-- all to show that stigma has remained immersed in the epidemic.  While the word, stigma (or a “mark of disgrace”), sounds archaic and perhaps biblical, its lethal reach is ever-present—blocking people from HIV testing, imprisoning HIV-positive people in fear of rejection from families and friends, and setting up people for sexual violence if they try to negotiate safer sex.

From the East Village to Queens Village, from the Village of Harlem to the “Village” of East New York, we are still battling AIDS stigma. And there are those who simply do not understand this phenomenon.  Why, they say, is this still true?  We have lots of community-based organizations in NYC, public service campaigns in the subways, what more is needed?  The answer is, in fact, “more.”  AIDS stigma is embedded in how people feel about having sex, who they are when they are having sex and the skills needed to negotiate safer sex.  Since so many people do not want to talk about all kinds of sex—and not just the sex we think looks good on TV—we need more safe and non-judgmental spaces to support people to talk about sex. 

The fact that AIDS stigma is embedded in complex issues such as homophobia, cultural and religious rules, poverty and sexism which help fuel this epidemic, there is a considerable need for more complex webs of HIV/AIDS services.  The work of empowering people living with or at risk of HIV doesn’t just come in one form.  When we integrate job placement, hot meals and psychological counseling with legal services, GED classes and medical care, we successfully help those who are stigmatized.  

While increases in HIV/AIDS services cost more money, the impact of AIDS stigma is even more expensive.  Recently, a family affected by HIV/AIDS was kicked out of their home because the landlord found out the father died of AIDS. They ended up in a city shelter and we know the shelter system is very costly for the city’s administration to manage.  We were able to work with this family to help them find a more permanent home and linkages to care.  As their lives become more stabilized, this family will be able to move forward with continuing their education, seeking work, paying taxes—thus contributing to the city. 

In GMHC’s 30th year, we remain committed to providing supportive services to thousands of men, women and families affected by HIV/AIDS, HIV testing and prevention programs, and advocacy for sound public health policies.  And through our courageous and compassionate hard work, we will persevere in battling AIDS stigma.  Ultimately, it still takes a village and New York City’s “villages” benefit from our collective efforts to decrease new infections and support those living with HIV and AIDS.


Marjorie J. Hill, PhD is the Chief Executive Officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).  Her article first appeared in The Huffington Post on April 17, 2012.