Awards of Courage
Honoring with Pride 2000 Honoree
Cornelius Baker has been one of the AIDS community’s most successful organization-builders and an outstandingly effective advocate on behalf of people with AIDS. He served as Executive Director of the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) beginning in 1996; earlier this year, he was appointed Executive Director of Whitman-Walker Clinic, the primary community- based provider of HIV/AIDS services in the Washington area and one of the largest AIDS service organizations in the country. Mr. Baker is currently a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services panel on clinical practices in HIV treatment, the U.S. Public Health Service/Infectious Disease Society of America’s Working Group on the Prevention of Opportunistic Infections, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS. He has served as an aide to Washington, D.C. City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz; as a member of the transition team of President George Bush; as Confidential Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the National AIDS Program Office (NAPO) under the Bush administration; and as the first Director of Public Policy for NAPWA. Mr. Baker is former President and Fundraising Chairman of Brother, Help Thyself, the gay community charitable giving campaign of Washington and Baltimore.
Here in Washington, the epidemic didn’t start as early as it did in some other places. In late 1982, early 1983, I first became aware of friends of friends who were becoming sick, and Whitman-Walker held its first forum on AIDS in April, 1983. Whitman-Walker was founded prior to AIDS, as a gay men’s STD clinic, and then it evolved into a larger gay and lesbian health clinic. When AIDS emerged, the clinic refocused its work on gay men, but it has continued to grow from there, as HIV has spread. It is now a gay and lesbian health clinic that also responds to the needs of all people living with HIV.
It was at this time that someone I loved very much became very ill, and it was obvious that it was AIDS. We were in a relationship, and I myself became infected. He died in 1985, which spurred a deeper commitment on my part to being involved. From 1985 to 1989, I worked for Councilwoman Carol Schwartz on the City Council. She was on two city committees that had to look at AIDS issues: Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which was examining the conduct of the insurance industry; and Housing and Urban Development, which pushed for funds to establish AIDS housing. My heart is still warmed by what seem like small victories now — like when we were able to get that first $65,000 tucked into a budget bill to fund housing at Whitman-Walker. From there I went to work in the Bush administration, mostly at the Department of Health and Human Services, in the National AIDS Program Office. I hope I made a difference there, in helping our community’s voices to be heard.
Undoubtedly, throughout the ’80s, our government — on the local, state, and national level — was an obstacle. People were simply not demonstrating leadership. But I’m actually happy that my AIDS work began in government, because the result has been that I have never felt divorced from the process, in the way I conceived of myself or my own work. I believe that we are the government. That doesn’t mean that we always hold the balance of power — I just think you have to push forward anyway, put your viewpoint out there, be engaged. Particularly as a black, this is very important to me. Not to be at that table certainly dishonors the lives of a lot of people who died in the last century so that we could have the right to vote and the right to participate fully. And as a person with HIV, this is about my life, after all — this is about whether I’m going to live or die. And why would I ever want to give up any of my power in that discussion to other people? I just couldn’t imagine that.
What’s more, I want to make sure that even when I’m not personally at the table, somebody who represents people like me is there and engaged in the discussion. This is the mission of NAPWA, the National Association of People with AIDS, where I went in 1992, to help represent the voices of people with HIV in advocating for our lives. I was their first public policy director, and I felt really honored to go there, to help create a structure to allow people with HIV to be involved in Washington advocacy in an organized, professional, and consistent way. The work at NAPWA in the ’90s was especially important, because it was a time when we could have a real impact on the shape of our nation’s response to HIV, whether it be the Ryan White CARE Act or the mechanisms to fund vaccine research.
Washington, D.C., because of its high rate of HIV infection, is a huge challenge, but it is also an incredible opportunity to show leadership. Because I believe that today, our real challenge is to fully implement a broad national response to HIV that has an impact in every community, reducing new HIV transmission and also getting every single person in need of care into a compassionate and loving system of care. I think that we can only do that "on the ground" — it’s like the final phase of war. We have convinced governmental leaders that we need to go to war, and we have the skills to go to war. So now we have to do it. And we should think about it this way: this is not the sort of war where soldiers march in and destroy; instead, we’re there to liberate. We have to get into the communities, we have to convince people, and we have to be able to do this virtually person by person. That’s a lot of work, but I think it’s the great challenge that we have before us now, if we’re really to transform our nation.
Whitman-Walker is doing its part in this work. Ever since I first moved to Washington, I’ve believed that Whitman-Walker is one of the most important and significant institutions in our community. After all, our health is our most valuable possession. And I’m talking about health in the broadest sense — not only bodily health, but also emotional health: how we learn to be gay men in a healthy way, how we learn to express love in a healthy way, how we learn to experience life in a healthy way, free of dogma and the weight of moralistic prohibitions. I think that Whitman-Walker, because of its role, has a unique ability to shape life in our community, embracing and supporting us all.
I feel that our work is about being human. Those of us who have seen so much horror over the past 19 years, living through the deaths of all our friends, we certainly know what we are fighting against. But I also think it’s important that we know what we are fighting for: to create a world that is much more abundant in love and compassion, a world full of the beauty that comes from human beings acting decently toward one another. At this point, at least to me, this is what the work is about. We should be trying to transform society in what we’re doing. Because this isn’t something new, and if we don’t transform society now, then we are allowing this to happen again. Yes, in the latter part of the 20th century, it was AIDS that revealed who our nations weren’t going to respond to, who was worthless, and who didn’t deserve to be saved. But that wasn’t very different than what we saw a half century earlier, when the people of the world sat passively by during the Holocaust, as Jews were slaughtered. It wasn’t that much different than what we saw a half century before that, as the American Indians were rounded up and put on reservations after being slaughtered all over the United States. And it certainly wasn’t that much different than the silence of two centuries, as blacks were enslaved throughout the Americas and parts of Europe. So I think that the challenge — locally, nationally, and around the world — is to say there has to be some fundamental restructuring within our societal framework, so that we don’t repeat this epidemic or other situations like this again. This urgently needs to be done.