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.

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