AIDS Walk Washington — slated for Saturday — has gone through several ups and downs over its 24-year history. Joe Izzo, a psychotherapist at Whitman-Walker Clinic, the organization the AIDS Walk benefits, has been there all along.
Izzo started at the Clinic in 1986, also the first year of the Walk. He remembers a group of about 600 that first year walking on the National Mall. It grew considerably over the years and boomed throughout the 1990s with about 35,000 walkers and runners at its peak.
But 9-11 took a devastating toll on the annual event, which the Clinic relies heavily upon for a significant chunk of its annual funding. Scheduled for less than a month after the 2001 terrorist attacks, only about 2,500 showed up that year.
“It’s planned a year in advance and obviously we had no idea what was going to happen that day in September,” Izzo says. “People were just terrified to go out and be in a public place that soon after, especially on the Mall of all places. So it’s been building up ever since then, but we’ve never reached the numbers we had in the ’90s.”
Izzo is setting his own records, though. Last year he broke the $2,000 threshold for the first time with his individual sponsorship. As of this week, he’s up to $1,600 for this year. He says securing sponsors has gotten much easier in the electronic age.
“I’ve raised a hell of a lot more since the days when I had to go around with paper pledge sheets and collect it all by hand,” he says.
Izzo, a 62-year-old Brooklyn native, has been in the D.C. area since 1965 and in the city itself since 1977. He conducts individual and group psychotherapy sessions at the Clinic and specializes in transgender and substance abuse issues. Most of his clients are HIV positive. He says things have improved at the Clinic this year, a welcomed change over the tumult of the two previous years which found it faced with layoffs.
“2007 and 2008 were just nightmares,” he says. “It was a pretty awful place to have to work but it has stabilized considerably.”
Izzo lives with his partner, Tom, whom he met at the Eagle in December, 1992, in Washington’s Brookland neighborhood. He enjoys reading, walking and gardening in his spare time.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I came out in June of 1979 at the age of 31, here in D.C. I was still a member of a Roman Catholic-teaching Brotherhood and a campus minister at the Catholic University of America at the time. This was the beginning of the end for me with the Catholic Church as I started a support group for the gay and lesbian students, faculty and staff at Catholic. This, along with my advocacy of ordination for women in Roman Catholicism “cooked my goose” with the Vatican and by the end of 1982 I was forced out of the Order and the Church. Since both of my parents were very devote Italian/German Catholics, coming out to them was particularly difficult. They eventually became very accepting and supportive and my mother wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II in 1986 to tell him and Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) that they were wrong in what they were teaching about gay people.
Who’s your gay hero?
I have many gay heroes, but since I’m a very political person, the one who stands out above all is Harvey Milk.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
I used to enjoy going to Tracks Dance Club and welcomed many a New Year at their New Year’s Eve Parties.
What’s your dream gay wedding?
I love the simplicity and directness of marriage under the care of my Quaker Meeting. No fanfare, no clergy officiating — just a simple gathering of friends in silent worship, witnessing two people’s commitment of love to each other. Friends Meeting of Washington has been joining all couples, regardless of gender, since 1992. We just celebrated our first “legal” Gay marriage on Sept. 18th. It was a real sense of victory and triumph.
What non-gay issue are you most passionate about?
I have always been a dedicated environmentalist and am currently in the process of “greening” my home with sustainable materials and solar panels to generate my own electricity.
What historical outcome would you change?
The failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA) and their pathetic support of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I’m a non-theist but I’m in awe of the ultimate, incomprehensible mystery of the universe and the energy that sustains and expands it.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
I attended a fund raising concert for an Appalachian Children’s Hospital with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar in the 1970s. I was sitting in the nose bleed section of the old Capital Center. I got high just from breathing the air, which was blue/brown from pot smoke.
On what do you insist?
A non-violent approach to resolving human conflicts. My non-gay heroes have been Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
As a person who has become an introvert in middle and later life, I deplore social networking technology and have never used anything except e-mail and telephone. I like my privacy!
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“The Grapes of Wrath.” I’ve always believed in using anger for social change and the uplift of the dispossessed and marginalized.
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
I would actively protest tampering with something that wasn’t broken in the first place. I believe in allowing nature/evolution to take its own course without unnecessary human meddling.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Stop putting so much emphasis on repealing DADT. With all the homophobes in the military services, self-identifying lesbians and gay men will be the first victims of friendly fire. As a pacifist, I oppose all forms of murder, even those sanctioned by governments. I don’t want any men, women or children killed in war.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians and all other warring factions throughout the world.
What gay stereotype annoys you most?
The mistaken belief promoted by the Religious Right that LGBT people are pedophiles.
What’s your favorite gay movie?
Matches my Gay Hero — “MILK.”
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Arriving “fashionably” late for a party. That’s just damn rude!
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
All the jackets, baseball caps, back packs, T-shirts and scarves that I’ve earned over the last 24 years for my fund raising efforts for AIDSWalk Washington.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That I was a gay man and that it was pointless and demeaning to remain in the closet for another 13 years.
I don’t have to travel far from my home in Northeast D.C. to attend all the rallies, protests and demonstrations for peace, justice and human rights.