Friday, January 18, 2013

How GMHC's Savor Dinner Nourishes People Living With HIV and AIDS

by Wilson Rodriguez

wilson rodriguez
Chef Wilson Rodriguez with Lydell Williams & Crystal Taylor

The dining room on the seventh floor was full for the recent holiday dinner. The mood was upbeat as our clients -- men and women living with HIV and AIDS -- relished the beautifully-prepared meal. As the Chef of the GMHC's Meals Program, I enjoy walking throughout the room and talking to our clients, many of whom I see throughout the year. At one table, I noticed a man who, while seated with others, was alone. He was quietly eating and crying. I found an empty chair by the windows and pulled up next to him. I wanted to find out why he was in tears. He turned to me and shared how the food reminded him of his mother's cooking. She had died a few years ago. And what made his grief even worse, I learned, was his father refused to talk to him because he was HIV-positive.

Isolation. Stigma. Shame. Words I would have not connected to cooking until I came to work at GMHC 10 years ago. Over 90,000 hot and nutritious meals are served annually. The lunches and dinners are not only delicious and elegant, they create comfort and arrest people's fears about being hungry. Each day, our dining room becomes a community room, a family room, a place to connect to others. Because of the stigma attached to people living with HIV and AIDS, there are clients who continue to be made to feel like they don't deserve good things in their lives. It is very disheartening to hear about times when family members and neighbors have shamed our clients for living with HIV or AIDS. Our clients deserve the best and I purchase the best quality of food I can get. I know that the people we serve are so appreciative.

I also contribute my culinary skills by teaching the staff and high-school interns who are part of a vocational training program. I am always teaching. One staff person, in particular, came to me through GMHC's Workforce Development Department. He had experienced homelessness, substance use and other traumas. Over the years of working with him, he now has a stable home, he is healthy and sober, and is an enthusiastic cook. He actually helps me train the high-school students and is giving back to the community. My staff, volunteers and interns are a terrific team. We are a family. While we have our rough days, we also have so much fun. A happy kitchen cooks great food!
A lot of what I do is from the heart. I love cooking and have a passion for both it and feeding people. That's why I am excited about our fifth annual fundraiser, Savor, which will bring together some of the best chefs in the country to provide guests with a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience. It is an honor and a privilege to have Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef of Butter and The Darby, who recently won, The Next Iron Chef on the Food Network, and Colleen Grapes, pastry chef of the Red Cat and the Harrison, as part of Savor's culinary dream team.

This year, GMHC will have two honorees at Savor -- the Keith Haring Foundation and Joy Tomchin. The Keith Haring Foundation has been tremendously supportive in funding our Keith Haring Food Pantry Program which distributes groceries and provides nutritional counseling to clients in need. I work closely with the program's nutritionists when preparing my menus each week so they are heart healthy (i.e., low in sodium and fat). Joy Tomchin is being saluted for her longstanding philanthropy to GMHC and for producing the powerful Oscar-nominated documentary, How to Survive a Plague. These chefs and honorees are all passionate in their work and support in the fight against AIDS. By joining us for Savor on March 21 at Cipriani 42nd Street, you can help us nourish people living with HIV and AIDS.

For more information, please visit

Wilson Rodriguez is the Chef and Meals Program Coordinator at GMHC. His article was originally published in The Huffington Post on January 18, 2013.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. in the 32nd year of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

by Marjorie J. Hill, PhD, CEO, Gay Men's Health Crisis

On January 15, 2013, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 84 years old. We wonder what he would have thought about six gay men, who later became our founders, and their friends who gathered in a living room in 1981, and began what would become the first AIDS service organization the world, Gay Men's Health Crisis. 

We wonder what Dr. King would have thought about the HIV/AIDS epidemic now in its 32nd year and the social injustices that are still intrinsically linked to it, including homophobia, stigma, discrimination, poverty, racism, sexism, lack of access to health care--and sadly more.

Dr. King and the activists before and after him offer us a profusion of extraordinarily courageous activism to continue to live by and learn from. With each step we take to fight social injustices, one powerful undercurrent remains constant--the importance of service to others. Dr. King taught us, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?" 

GMHC was built on the foundation of serving others through the drastic times and the persistent times. That small group of volunteers came forward and bravely struggled to piece together responses to this developing plague when very little response was coming from government officials and elsewhere. Decades later, thousands of volunteers, staff members, board members and supporters have walked our hallways to help those dying of AIDS, to now help people to live with HIV and AIDS. Thirty years ago, we could only provide basic prevention education to people of all racial, gender and sexual identities. Now we offer extended community outreach and HIV testing. Our advocacy for the rights of treatments and funding now includes advocacy for the rights to housing, food and healthcare. 

Our expanded work continues. GMHC's mission "to fight to end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected" reflects the civil rights movement at its core. We remain more committed and vigilant to reduce new HIV infections, care for those living with HIV and AIDS, and fight for human rights for all those affected by HIV and AIDS. As Dr. King once declared, "All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence."  

During this time of reflection on King's birthday, we join President Obama by encouraging everyone to be of service to others, particularly on Saturday, January 19, National Day of Service, and afterwards. To volunteer at GMHC, please visit, and throughout the country, visit

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Offering Care on the Battlefield of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic: An Interview With Designer Michael Bastian

by Marjorie J. Hill, PhD, GMHC's CEO

Recently I sat down with designer Michael Bastian, who received this year's Style Vault Award from my organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), for his generous support and for his exemplary talent in the fashion industry. This award would have been presented at GMHC's annual fundraiser, Fashion Forward, but the event was cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Hill: When did you first learn about the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

Bastian: I first learned about this virus in 10th grade health class. They didn't even have a real name for it yet. It was still called "gay cancer" or something. A classmate of mine gave a report on a New York Times Magazine cover story on it. I think a lot about how my generation was the first to get the warning signal that this disease was out there and how it affected us all. We were the first on the "life boat," in a way, but also the first generation with a front-row seat to the horrors and uncertainty of those early years.

Hill: What were your initial thoughts or feelings about the epidemic?

Bastian: Well, as a teenager who was just coming to terms with being gay, it was a terrible thing to hear about. Looking back, I think it probably kept me in the closet a little longer than I probably would have been if there weren't this mysterious new disease that was, at the time, explicitly linked to being gay. It really gave young gay people a reason to stay underground back then (we're talking early '80s).

Hill: Is there a particular story related to HIV and AIDS that has moved you?

Bastian: They all move me, every single one. And they keep coming, unfortunately.

Hill: When did you start to get involved?

Bastian: I think my first contact with GMHC (like a lot of people) was when they started the AIDS Walk New York. Here was a great way for ordinary people to show their support and help raise some money in a very real way. After that, I think the next time I got involved beyond walking was after I started my company and was asked to participate in a GMHC runway show.

Hill: What drew you to work with GMHC?

Bastian: As a gay man living in New York, it was actually the least I could do, and GMHC was the first organization to actually address this disease head-on. They immediately became this kind of positive outlet for a lot of people frustrated that a cure wasn't being found, that the government didn't even talk about it, that friends were getting sick and dying and we still didn't fully understand why. GMHC was a place where we could direct that energy and frustration toward something good, even if we weren't sure at the time where this disease was taking us.

Hill: Why is it important to you to be a supporter of GMHC?

Bastian: It's actually more important than ever to support GMHC. As this disease and our knowledge of it evolves, we've learned it's not just a gay man's disease -- actually far from it. While gay men have been disproportionately affected, this has become an issue that touches all of us as humans. In 100 years we will be judged by how we responded to this crisis, and I'm proud that in these dark years I did what little I could. I was recently watching a documentary on the Civil War and how at the time there was very little emergency care on the battlefield, and more men were dying of infection from non-lethal wounds than from the wound itself. And in the midst of this confusion and devastation, one woman, Clara Barton, jumped in and did what she could from the back of her wagon to help save these men. Her efforts were the beginning of what has now become the American Red Cross. I see lots of parallels with the work of GMHC, the first to jump in the battle and do something when others won't or can't.

Hill: What examples have you seen of the fashion industry fighting AIDS?

Bastian: As a group, the fashion industry has been one of the strongest in the effort to fight HIV and AIDS. There are many groups dedicated to fighting this disease; GMHC's Fashion Forward is just one of them. But I think everyone in this industry fights it in their own way.

Hill: What do you see are the reasons that the fashion industry is so involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

Bastian: My industry was affected so strongly and immediately by this disease; we actually lost a significant part of a whole generation of designers. I think a lot about how the landscape in my industry would be different if we still had Perry Ellis, Halston, Willi Smith, Giorgio di Sant' Angelo and a million other talented designers and just other people in the industry around today.

Hill: If you could send out a message to the general public about HIV and AIDS, what would that message be?

Bastian: It's not over yet. While we now have more knowledge and enough history and information to take responsibility for our health and our actions as we each see fit, it's easy to become emotionally worn down and immune to this disease. This is the monster that barged into our bedrooms and living rooms and has unfortunately come to stay, at least for the time being. And just because it's been slightly tamed, it's still not going away. No one knows if we're nearing the end of this fight or just in the middle, but it's still here, and we can't let our guard down yet. It's not over until it's over.

Hill: If you had one wish about the epidemic, what would it be?

Bastian: Well, every New Year's Eve, I make a little prayer hoping this is the year some very smart person finds a cure for HIV/AIDS, but after 30 years of this prayer, now I just ask that I will be around when a cure is found. That will be the happiest day of my life.

photo by Adam Fredericks    

The interview was originally published in The Huffington Post on December 31, 2012