Awards of Courage
Honoring with Pride 2001 Honoree
Phill Wilson is Founder of the African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute and the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, as well as co-founder of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention. He also helped establish a number of other AIDS service and community- based organizations, including the National Minority AIDS Council. Mr. Wilson has been active in shaping AIDS policy and programs in both the City and County of Los Angeles, and has worked extensively on HIV/AIDS policy, research, prevention, and treatment issues in over a dozen countries. Mr. Wilson received amfAR’s "Award of Courage" at the Foundation’s Honoring with Pride 2001 benefit in New York and was interviewed prior to the event. Portions of that interview are excerpted below.
Over the last decade or so, you have been involved in the founding of several AIDS service and community-based organizations. Could you give a brief history of these accomplishments and describe how you came to be involved in AIDS policy?
Well, certainly how I first got involved is pretty easy. In 1980, I had an appointment with my doctor, and he noticed that I had swollen lymph nodes. He had been reading information in the literature about something that was going on with swollen lymph nodes in gay men. Both my partner and I had swollen lymph nodes, so we had biopsies done. I’m not sure why we had biopsies done, because there was nothing we could have learnt from them at the time. But a few weeks later a good friend of ours who we played baseball with got sick and died shortly after. And so we began the process of trying to educate ourselves, and we participated in some of the early demonstrations, well, actually, they weren’t really demonstrations, they were candlelight vigils and hotlines. Then, in 1985, I believe it was, in California, there was an initiative on the ballot that would have quarantined people who were living with HIV. By this time, they had figured out that it was a virus, and they had called it HIV, and there was a test for it.
So it was at that point that we realized that we had to get involved. They were really talking about draconian measures, about starting a concentration camp. I got involved initially as part of an organization called the Stop the AIDS Quarantine Initiative. From there we founded an organization called the AIDS Hospice Foundation and created the first AIDS hospice in Los Angeles, which was named after my partner, Chris Brown. That organization went on to become the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which they say is currently the largest nonprofit provider of HIV/AIDS healthcare in the country. Also, around that time, I took a job at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles and was a Founding Director of the Stop AIDS Project in Los Angeles, which was basically one of the very first safer sex programs to target gay men. In fact, I wrote the first workshop targeting black gay men with safer sex messages. Through that experience and from the work the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles was doing, I became acutely aware of how even then African Americans were being disproportionately impacted. From there I helped found the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention and was then asked by the Mayor of Los Angeles if I would come on board as the AIDS Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles. I did that, and when the Mayor decided not to run for re-election, I went to work for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). In 1995, I got sick, and in 1996, I finally decided that I couldn’t work like I had been working, and left APLA. I went to the University of Southern California, which is where I am now, technically, to run the AIDS Social Policy Archive. And in 1999, I founded the African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute.
AAAPTI is the first think tank for African American AIDS policy. Can you describe the mission and goals of the institute?
The mission of the institute is to stop HIV/AIDS in black communities by engaging black institutions and individuals in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. We do that in six ways. We develop policy and disseminate HIV policy as it impacts black people. We conduct training. We provide technical assistance for African American organizations who want to develop HIV programs and for AIDS organizations that want to serve black communities more effectively. We also disseminate information through our monthly newsletter, which has a circulation of 25,000, and on our website, www.blackaids.org, which gets about 100,000 hits a month, as well as through community forums around the country. We develop model programs and disseminate information about model programs. And we conduct advocacy that reflects an African American point of view.
African Americans now account for more than half of all new HIV cases in this country. Do you think perceptions are changing, or is AIDS still associated with gay white men?
I think that perceptions are changing, but slowly. I think that AIDS is still perceived as a gay white male disease. I think there are a number of factors that are involved in that. One is that there is still a tremendous amount of stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. People don’t want it to be their disease. And at the same time, people who have been in leadership positions in HIV/AIDS don’t want to give up the power, so the images continue to be white and gay, even as the epidemic has changed. And of course, the truth of the matter is that the epidemic is not over for anyone, including gay white men.
Have AIDS service organizations had to transform themselves as the epidemic has shifted to African American and Hispanic communities?
Some organizations are definitely doing a better job of providing services that respond to the changing demographics of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But I don’t think that’s the complete answer. If we’re serious about looking at the epidemic as it looks today and as it appears likely to look in the foreseeable future, the only way we’re going to do that is by supporting and investing in indigenous organizations. We need to make sure that we have black organizations, Latino organizations, and Asian organizations, and that these organizations have the same capabilities as the GMHCs and the APLAs of the world. Until then, we’re fooling ourselves. Quite frankly, we’re being patronizing; we’re being colonists. The only way to really address HIV and its full implications is to, yes, change some of the services that are happening in the other organizations, but also to develop an infrastructure in black, brown, and yellow communities.
How has the black community responded to your efforts?
I’ve actually been humbled by the huge response that we’ve gotten. You know we were told, “black folks won’t respond to AIDS.” And that clearly has not been the case. In the last year, the largest owner of black radio stations in this country has taken on AIDS, the National Association of Black Newspapers has taken on AIDS, the national provider of content on black radio has taken on AIDS, all of the major black websites have taken on AIDS, the civil rights organizations have taken on AIDS. There are black churches coming on board every day to address these issues. There is dialogue in communities. We began an initiative just last night in black bookstores, African American-centric bookstores. Just by sending out a few fliers, the room was packed. So I think there’s a resonance that is happening as black people are given the statistical facts, and as they are beginning to see people who look like us talk about this epidemic, who say, “I’m your brother, I’m your son, I’m your daughter, I’m your wife. I’m a part of this family, I’m a part of this community. And this is an issue that is killing me, this is an issue that is important to me.” And with that, I think that black communities are responding.
Do you see connections between HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and the epidemic in Africa?
I think there’s a huge connection—it is a complicated connection. I think it is absolutely appropriate that we are focusing on AIDS in Africa, and I think it should have happened much earlier. But I am concerned about this kind of either-or form of activism. And I am concerned that the focus that we’re placing on AIDS in Africa is to the exclusion of what’s happening among poor people and people of color in this country. There are still at least 40,000 Americans becoming infected with HIV each year, and I’m curious what we have to teach the Africans if we can’t solve the problem here. If you can’t solve the problem with black people who you see everyday, who speak the same language, who you live next to, who you went to school with, who you work with, how are you going to solve the problem for black people you have virtually nothing in common with? I don’t think that’s going to happen. So I do think that our government and other developed countries have a responsibility on AIDS in Africa, and activists have a responsibility. But I don’t think that we can do that work to the exclusion of the work that we need to do here at home.
In 1998 you wrote an editorial in Essence about how homophobia stalled the fight against AIDS. Are racism and prejudice against injection drug users now hindering the fight?
I think stigma in general has always hindered the fight against AIDS. And I think that certainly the issues around racism and drug phobia are critical issues. I think they’ve always been a part of the problem. Until we get to a point where we respect the humanity of each and every one of us, we’re not going to be successful in fighting AIDS. And so we need to deal with the diseases of addiction, we need to deal with the diseases of HIV, and quite frankly, we need to deal with the diseases of homophobia and racism.