Us Helping Us has grown by leaps and bounds since its humble origins. Founded in 1985 but incorporated in 1988, the black AIDS organization has its 25th anniversary event Monday night.
“What started as a support group in living rooms is now a certified treatment center with more than a dozen HIV and AIDS services from prevention support, service programs, HIV testing, screening, treatment adherence, behavioral intervention and more,” says Ron Simmons, president of the organization.
“A Passion for Living,” the agency’s anniversary event, is from 6-9 p.m. Monday at Arena Stage (1101 Sixth Street, S.W.). The agency will present awards to Dr. Theo Hodge, Darlene Nipper, Dana Fonville and others. Broadway actress/singer Jennifer Holliday (of “Dreamgirls” fame) will perform a 30-minute set. Proceeds from sales of the $150 tickets (tickets.arenastage.org) benefit Us Helping Us. Tickets are still available.
Simmons says it was apparent early on that something for black gay men was needed.
“Given the racism in this country, many of the people doing HIV work were just not culturally competent in dealing with black gay men,” he says. “We had people go to support groups early on and it would be mainly white guys talking about having to sell their second house to make ends meet whereas many of our guys couldn’t even make rent. There was just a disconnect between our issues and their issues,” Simmons says.
The agency, located at 3636 Georgia Ave., N.W., has 17 on staff and an annual operating budget of about $1.8 million. It tests about 2,000 people per year for HIV and about 3,000 come through its doors for various services.
Simmons, a 63-year-old Brooklyn native, came to Washington in 1980. After teaching mass communications at Howard University for about 12 years while earning a doctorate, he joined Us in 1992, the first year in a volunteer capacity. He’s single and lives in Petworth.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have been out since 1968. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to tell my parents. They caught my lover and me in a compromising position when they returned from a movie early. We were fully clothed but had obvious guilty facial expressions. The next morning I woke up feeling like a heavy weight was off my shoulder. The secret was out. I’ve been smiling ever since.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
Black lesbian activist Mandy Carter.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Past would be the Clubhouse, the Delta Elite, the Edge and the Brass Rail when it was on 13th Street, N.W. Presently I go out three times a year, usually to the Bachelor’s Mill to see friends and hear house music.
Describe your dream wedding.
Something small and outdoors, but I would let my spouse decide. If he wanted a big church wedding, so be it.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Economic inequality. Having hungry people in the richest nation upsets me.
What historical outcome would you change?
The assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Seeing LaBelle at the New York City opera house and watching Patti descend from the ceiling.
On what do you insist?
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
My essay, “Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Black Gay Intellectuals.”
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“The Road Less Traveled”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Nothing. I like being me.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
A spiritual realm and a supreme being encompassing all beings.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Move beyond the “gay-only” agenda, and collaborate with others fighting economic, racial, gender and political oppression.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
An end to poverty.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
That gay people only think about gay issues.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“Tongues Untied” and “Pariah”
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Judging people based on their physical attractiveness.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
A MacArthur Genius Award
What do you wish you’d known at 18.
That being gay is a blessing, not a curse.
I am from New York. It was too fast and I didn’t want to live like that. But compared to New York, most cities are too slow. D.C. was just right. It’s cosmopolitan. I love it here.