Ron Simmons, executive director and CEO of the D.C. AIDS service organization Us Helping Us, People Into Living, was honored for his 25 years of service with the organization during its annual fundraising gala on Oct. 29.
Simmons has been credited with playing a key role in transforming Us Helping Us from a volunteer support group for black gay men with HIV in 1992 into a nationally recognized health and wellness center with 27 full-time employees and an annual budget of $2.5 million.
In August, Simmons, who holds a doctorate degree in communications from Howard University, announced he would retire at the end of December.
In an interview with the Washington Blade, Simmons told of how his lifelong quest for social justice, including culturally sensitive HIV prevention efforts for LGBT African Americans, had its roots in his years as a student activist in the 1970s.
While attending the State University of New York at Albany, Simmons said he immersed himself in the early gay rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements while working on his bachelor’s degree in Afro American Studies and separate master’s degrees in African History and Educational Communications.
“Well Stonewall was in ’69 and I was 19 in ’69,” Simmons said. “And I had just really come out in college. And then we had the student strike in 1970, which really changed me profoundly,” he said. “It opened my eyes as an activist. I was involved with the student strike.”
He was referring to the eruption of student protests following President Richard Nixon’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War by ordering U.S. troops to invade Cambodia. A short time later, National Guard troops shot and killed four students and wounded nine others during an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio, triggering more student protests and strikes, or the boycotting of classes, at college campuses across the country.
Simmons moved to D.C. in 1980 to begin his doctorate studies at Howard. Five years later, unbeknownst to Simmons, the Rev. Rainy Cheeks and activist Prem Deben founded Us Helping Us as a support group for black gay men with HIV. Its founding came at a time often described as the dark days of the AIDS epidemic, when an HIV diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence because no effective medical treatment had been developed.
As a gay man with HIV, Simmons has said he joined and began attending the Us Helping Us support group in March 1991, a development he has called “life changing.” At the time he was an assistant professor at Howard and was being urged by friends to begin treatment with AZT, an early AIDS drug that had debilitating side effects that activists have said often hastened the death of AIDS patients.
“At the time basically no one, no black organization, was telling people with HIV that they could live,” said Simmons. “Everyone was saying you’re going to die. Us Helping Us was the only black agency that said you can live with this disease.”
Lacking an effective drug to treat people with HIV, Cheeks and Deben developed what they called a holistic regimen of nutrition, stress management, meditation, and exercise.
“I thought it was incredible,” said Simmons, who joined the group as a volunteer after completing a 12-week introduction to the regimen.
“It was a cultural based group,” he said. “Every week that they came they learned something else about how to preserve their health by looking at the body, the mind and the spirit,” he said. “And then for the last part we talked about the issues about the experience of self that we need to look at in order to live with HIV.”
He said he rejected the advice of friends to begin treatment with AZT, a decision that may have saved his life, Simmons said. He notes that he is among the people who became HIV positive in the early years who lived to benefit from the availability of life-saving AIDS drugs that emerged in the middle to late 1990s.
“I remember friends of mine dying every seven to 10 days,” he said. “Now that we’re down to a pill a day I think it’s incredible. And I am on these drugs. I started taking medications in 2003. So I swear by them.”
Simmons tells of how Cheeks persuaded him to become Us Helping Us’s first executive director in 1992 after Simmons lost his teaching job at Howard.
Simmons was honored Oct. 29, at the Us Helping Us annual event called A Passion for Living, A Celebratory Night of Giving at the University of the District of Columbia’s Student Center Ballroom.
Marvin Bowser, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s brother, read a proclamation at the event issued by Mayor Bowser declaring Oct. 29 Ron Simmons Day in the District of Columbia.
Simmons gives a first-hand account of his life’s journey before and after his tenure at Us Helping Us in his interview with the Blade, which follows.
Blade: Let’s start with where you are from and where you were born and raised. You’ve said before that you’re from Brooklyn, N.Y.?
Simmons: Yes, Brownsville.
Blade: Did you go to high school in Brooklyn?
Simmons: Yes, I went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School – FDR High School.
Blade: Your resume shows you went to the State University of New York at Albany for your undergraduate degree?
Simmons: Yes, I graduated in 1972 and I went back there in ’77 for my masters.
Blade: What year did you graduate from high school?
Simmons: I graduated from high school in 1968. I went to college. I graduated in 1972. Then I worked for the Newark, New Jersey Board of Education. I was the public relations man for the superintendent of schools.
Blade: So you went back to Albany for your masters?
Simmons: Yes, MA in history and an MS in educational communications
Blade: When did you move to Washington?
Simmons: 1980 – the summer of 1980 in August.
Blade: Was it a short time later that you went to Howard University for your Ph.D.?
Simmons: I came to D.C. to get my Ph.D. from Howard. So basically I came here in August and I was in class like the last week of August. So I did that. I was going for my doctorate and I was a teaching assistant. I taught like two classes a week. And then in 1986 they hired me full time. I hadn’t finished my doctorate yet. I finished my doctorate in ’87. And after I finished my doctorate they hired me as an assistant professor and I was in for another five years.
Blade: You said you became an activist during your student years in Albany?
Simmons: Yeah. In my senior year – I did my college yearbook. I was the editor in chief of the yearbook. And it was quite controversial. In fact someone told me it was denounced on the floor of the New York State Senate the day it came out.
Blade: Why was that?
Simmons: Because it was very controversial. It had a gay section. It had a section about the Vietnam War. The section on the Vietnam War had a surprise climax that a lot of people didn’t like.
Blade: Was the tone of it against the war?
Simmons: Oh yeah. It was very much against the war. There was this picture taken of two Vietnamese soldiers holding up two severed heads. I don’t know if you ever saw that…And this guy, this solider was holding up two severed heads.
And so when I talked about the whole war section I put in this picture from a book called Vietnam Incorporated. So I had pictures of the soldiers with themselves relaxing. Then I had pictures of the horrors of the war. And it ended with that shot of the guy holding the severed head. And it said something like if this makes you uncomfortable you can imagine how they feel.
And then when you flip the page it’s the same guy with the two heads but you see it cropped. They were the same pictures three times on the page. By the time you get to the last one it’s cropped down to just a square of the severed head. Then when you flip it over the senior section starts with all the senior pictures and the severed head runs through the middle row. A lot of people were upset by that.
But a lot of people loved it. Kurt Vonnegut said that he thought it was really cool.
Blade: Were you active in other student activities?
Simmons: Yeah. Well frankly the yearbook pretty much consumed my senior year because it was a lot of work, a lot of writing. But I was involved with the gay group.
Blade: Wasn’t that in the early years for having student gay groups? Did it start right after Stonewall?
Simmons: Right. Well Stonewall was in ’69. And I was 19 in ’69. And I had just really come out in college. And then we had the student strike of 1970, which really changed me profoundly. That’s when I really became open minded. It opened my eyes as an activist. I was involved with the student strike.
Blade: That was against the Vietnam War, wasn’t it?
Simmons: Right, when Nixon invaded Cambodia all hell broke loose. And so campuses around the country were going out on strike.
Blade: And then Kent State happened, right?
Simmons: Right. Yes, Kent State happened. All of that – the whole turbulent time – and it really forced you – well it forced me to grow up in a lot of ways because after we shut down the university we reopened it the next day after we got the faculty to agree to stop the semester, give everybody a pass-fail grade, right? That was maybe in April or so. We reopened the school and we had what we called liberation classes. There were classes about the Vietnam War.
That was when I really became an activist and began to appreciate what was involved in being an activist. It also made me a much better student.
And after the yearbook I wanted to outdo myself. And I started doing a column for the student newspaper that was written from the perspective of a black gay male. I think that was the first time in history that was ever done. That’s what someone told me. But anyway it was a column called Faggot Tales. It was a takeoff on fairytales.
Blade: Did you actually call it Faggot Tales?
Simmons: Yes, Faggot Tales. And needless to say it was really controversial. The gay students hated it. The black students hated it. But it was really a funny column.
It was very controversial. I guess the most controversial essay I wrote was a column on cruising campus tea rooms for gay sex.
Blade: Oh boy.
Simmons: Yes, it was really funny because I found this out of the way bathroom that I didn’t even know existed…Then I said next thing we’re going to talk about how to seduce the faculty or how to get As to replace their Bs.
So that was the article. The local newspaper in the city of Troy, the Troy Record – it was their lead editorial — they called it quote, and I love this, they called it the most vile and disgusting thing they ever read about homosexualism. Oh my God, homosexualism.
Blade: Did the college administration allow the columns to continue?
Simmons: They couldn’t stop us the same way they couldn’t stop the yearbook. The yearbook had a photo of a girl that looked like she was committing felatio. Now she was eating a hot dog, but I cropped it so it looked like she was doing felatio. And the publisher, or the printer, they wrote back and said I had to get faculty approval for them to do that.
But as part of the student strike of 1970 when all hell was breaking loose the compromise was that we would come back and be good but we would get rid of the faculty overseeing student activities. So the faculty person who normally would have overseen the yearbook to make sure it was good and clean, we got rid of them.
Blade: What was your reason and rationale for the highly controversial content in the college yearbook and your column in the student newspaper at Albany State?
Simmons: Part of it was my protesting of what I thought was an unjust system. The whole thing about the Vietnam section in the yearbook, which was around the time of the student strike, was that here we were at this beautiful campus going to school as if nothing was wrong and people were being killed through our taxpayer’s money and our brothers 6,000 miles away. So in essence it was bringing the war home so people could see there was a whole other reality going on.
So that was why I did it. Looking back I think I would probably do it again because I think I had to make that point. The yearbook was dedicated to what I called the silent majority, and I said that includes blacks, homosexuals, prisoners, and poor people. That’s where I was coming from.
Blade: What about the student newspaper column Faggot Tales?
Simmons: I thought of it as a clever take-off on fairytales. I thought it was hysterical. And of course the gay students just had a fit. And the fact that I was black the black kids had a fit too.
Blade: Could you have been way ahead of your time, with young LGBT people now insisting on using the term Queer to describe themselves?
Simmons: Well yes. But part of that was also part of the black cultural expression of taking back the term [N-word]. Back in the ‘60s the issue was whites call us that and so we can’t use it. And some would say no, take possession of it and define it for what it is. It’s the whole question of taking ownership of your term so you can define it. I’m not saying I think that way per se. But that’s how I thought at that time when I was like 23 years old.
Blade: Can you tell a little about what you did in D.C. after you moved here in 1980?
The first time I came to D.C. was for the first Third World Gay Conference that was held the same week as the gay march, and that was in 1979. And that was profound. And that also introduced me to D.C.
Blade: Was that held in conjunction with the 1979 gay march?
Simmons: Well it was held during the same time. The march did not organize it but – Billy Jones. You know Billy Jones.
Simmons: Billy Jones and the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays and Lesbians – they said since people would be coming to D.C. from all over the country for that weekend, why don’t we have a third world gay conference. So they put on the conference. It was held at the Harambee House, the hotel near the Howard campus. About 400 people came from all over – black, Latino, Native American. People came from Mexico. Some came from Canada. It was maybe half men, half women. It was incredible because none of us had seen anything like that. It was the first time something like that had been done. It was historic.
So I got to know D.C. people. I got to know Sidney Brinkley, who was doing Black Light [magazine] – that publication way back then. I met Billy Jones and people with the coalition. And I also met Essex Hemphill. And that’s how he and I became friends. It was a black city where black people were in charge and the gay and lesbian community partied together. And I was so impressed I said I’ve got to live here. So I moved to D.C. a year later…
Blade: Your Ph.D. was in mass communications. What prompted you to focus on that?
Simmons: That’s because that’s what I wanted to learn. I wanted to become a TV producer and produce TV shows…It took me seven years to get my Ph.D. And that was because after I finished my class work in two and a half years and then I had to write my dissertation — what I wanted to do is become a TV producer. I didn’t want to write a dissertation.
So I got involved with the Howard TV station. At that time I was working as a teaching assistant, then eventually as an instructor in the Radio, TV and Film Department. So I was so busy having fun between teaching my classes and doing video production that I forgot about the dissertation…
Blade: You’ve said in the past that Us Helping Us founder, Rev. Rainy Cheeks, invited you to be the executive director in 1992.
Simmons: Yes, he wanted me to volunteer as the executive director. And I told him no because I was teaching at Howard and I was this big time Dr. Simmons. I had a very swollen head.
Blade: At that time you had your Ph.D.?
Simmons: Yes, I had my Ph.D. I had been teaching with my Ph.D. at Howard for five years. I had been teaching for a total of 12 years, the last five of which I had my Ph.D. I was HIV positive and I had gone to Rainey’s Us Helping Us support group that was meeting in Rainey’s apartment. And I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I’ve talked about this in interviews in the past.
At the time basically no one, no black organization was telling people with HIV that they could live. Everyone was saying you’re going to die. Us Helping Us was the only black agency that said you can live with this disease.
I thought it was incredible. And we taught people how to live with this disease. So I was with the 12-week support group. It was a cultural based group. Every week that they came they learned something else about how to preserve their health by looking at the body, the mind and the spirit. There was everything in terms of the body – about food and nutrition and herbs and water and exercise.
Then for the mind we’d talk about how to meditate and how to visualize and how to deal with mind by dialogue and how to deal with stress management. And then for the last part we talked about the issues about the experience of self that we need to look at in order to live with HIV. It was incredible.
Blade: And when was that?
Simmons: I joined the group in ’91 and I became the head of it in ’92.
So Rainy asked me if I would serve as the volunteer ED and I said no. He said OK, I’ll pray on it. I said to myself you go pray all you want, honey, the answer is no, OK? Then a few months later Howard told me they were not going to renew my contract. After 12 years of teaching I was devastated.
Blade: Did Howard University give you a reason for not renewing your teaching contract?
Simmons: They said it was because I hadn’t published enough. I think that was their excuse. But I wasn’t going to contest it.
Blade: Your resume shows a lot of writings that you published.
Simmons: Yeah, I know. So basically they were upset that I was the official gay faculty person and the student newspaper had my picture on the front page as the first gay faculty. I heard they were talking about me in meetings among the faculty because, listen now, in the School of Communications there were faculty who were having Bible sessions in their offices when I’m showing videos of the gay march in my classroom. So it was just a matter of time.
Blade: So you went back to Rainey Cheeks?
Simmons: I needed someone to cry on. I called Rainey. Rainy said oh that’s horrible. He said maybe now you can be the ED at Us Helping Us. And that was how it started.
Now none of us had a background in business. I didn’t have an MBA. I didn’t know anything about business or organizations. But I had an instinct. So I said Rainey the fact that we’re telling people they can live with HIV at a time when doctors say no you cannot – that makes us look like quacks. So we really need a board of directors that will give us credibility. So we went to a bunch of people and said look we don’t want you to give us any money. We just want you to be on our board, come to board meetings, and let us use your name.
So they said fine we’ll do it. We had Robert Washington, the former commissioner of mental health for D.C. He was our board chair. We had Elizabeth Thompson, who was the director of the Mayor’s Commission on Food, Nutrition and Health. She was on our Board of Directors. We had a social worker on our board of directors. We had two doctors on our Board of Directors. We had a minister too.
Basically we had a Board of Directors that gave us credibility so you couldn’t just write us off. And since I had just done a dissertation I was good at writing grants. That was in ’92. In ’93 we got the board to agree to rent a two-bedroom house for our headquarters on L Street right around the corner from the Bachelor’s Mill.
Then in ’95 we got our first grant from the city, our first technical assistance grant. They asked me what do you want technical assistance in. Do you want board development, staff development, program development, or fiscal management? And I said I want fiscal management.
And that was when Barbara Prince came. Barbara Prince has been our comptroller since she came to us in ’96 or so. She really has taken care of our finances in ways that I could not appreciate.
Blade: Is she an accountant?
Simmons: Yes, she’s a CPA…So that was like 20 years ago that Barbara came to Us Helping Us. Between her keeping track of the money and my writing the grants grew Us Helping Us from a support group in Rainey’s living room to what I think we are the oldest and the largest black gay AIDS organization in the world.
Blade: Have you seen the AIDS epidemic change significantly since you started at Us Helping Us?
Simmons: Definitely. People were dying. Like every seven to 10 days someone was dying.
Blade: This was before the new drugs were available?
Simmons: Yeah. The only drug they had was AZT and then I think they got something called D4T. I had done my research on AZT. And so I knew I would never take that shit. That drug made no sense. As you researched that drug you realized that it was crazy. AZT was originally developed as a cancer drug. But it was killing people so they put it on the shelf. For some reason they said maybe this will work for HIV. And so they gave it to people with HIV. And they were saying it may give you two more years of life.
I was saying, two more years of life? I want 30 or 40 years more of life. I don’t want two years. So why would I take that shit? And as a cancer drug it stopped the body from reproducing cells because cancer cells were cells reproducing out of control. So it stopped the body from producing cells, but it stopped the entire body from producing cells. So my question was why would you give a drug like that to someone whose body can’t make T-cells? If your T-cells are dropping, why give you something that stops the body from making cells? It made no sense. So I said I’m not going to touch it.
Friends of mine said oh please Ron, take it. You’ll die if you don’t take it. And I was like, one, I don’t plan to die. And two, I don’t want just two years of life. I want more than two years of life. And I feel fine now so why should I take this drug? Everyone who I saw took it looked worse when they took it than before. I was like, no?
Blade: Were they asking people who were HIV positive but who were yet sick to start taking it?
Simmons: No, I think at the beginning they didn’t start asking you to take drugs until your T-cell count was below 200.
So anyway, now today we’re down to one pill a day. That to me is incredible. I remember seeing people walking down the street with Kaposi’s lesions all down their body. I remember friends of mine dying every seven to 10 days. Now that we’re down to a pill a day I think it’s incredible. And I am on these drugs. I started taking medications in 2003. So I swear by them.
So we stopped doing our holistic sick support group. Once they came out with protease inhibitors in ’96 and ’97 we felt conflicted because we knew the pills worked. And we knew the holistic approach didn’t always work. Or it worked for some people for like five or 10 years and then it would stop working. So the question became are we doing a disservice if we continued to teach people a holistic approach to HIV when we now have pills that can extend life 20, 30, to 50 years? And so we stopped our holistic support group at that point. We still have a support group for HIV positive men but now we urge them to get linked to care and get on the medication…
History of acquiring current building
Simmons: At that point we were using a widow-less room in the ICAN office, which was the Inner City AIDS Network. And Andre Scott, who I think was the associate ED – he was one of the original incorporators of Us Helping Us. They let us use a window-less room for a dollar a year. That was my first office with Rainey. Rainey had an old computer, a Tandy 800. That was our first word processor.
Blade: Are you talking about the early ‘90s?
Simmons: Yes, the early ‘90s. The first computer we purchased was a used Commodore 260. Remember those? So we started writing grants. I finally talked the board of directors into renting the house on L Street that Herb owned. So we moved to L Street.
Blade: Where was the ICAN building at that time?
Simmons: The ICAN building at that point was at 3rd and K, N.W. So they folded. And we moved to the house on L Street.
Blade: Do you mean near the Bachelor’s Mill?
Simmons: Near the Bachelor’s Mill at 809 L St. And that was our home for maybe three years. And we were happy there – our HIV positive support group. Everything was fine.
Then in ’95 the Health Department came to me and said look, Ron, you’re one of the best agencies we have.
So they said we would love to give you more money but we can’t because you’re only dealing with positive men. We deal every day with negative men. Would you consider expanding your mission to positive and negative men and start doing prevention work rather than just support services and care? They said as a positive support group the most we can give you is $30,000. If you also dealt with prevention we could give you $100,000.
And I thought about that. I also thought about that if you’re serious about reducing HIV among black gay men you can’t be behind the curve only dealing with those who are positive. You need to get in front of the curve and deal with the negative so they don’t become positive if you really want to deal with HIV. So to make a long story short, I went back to the board, we deliberated, we went back and forth and the board said ok let’s do it. So we changed the mission to include negative men.
Our main headquarters was at 811 L St., S.E. And then we had the building at 809 L and then as we grew bigger and started getting more grants we had case management across the street on the first floor. Mental health services were up the block. The transgender job center was two blocks away. It was crazy. At one point we had six locations in a four block radius.
And so my staff was saying Ron we’ve got to get a building. And of course we didn’t have any money for a building but I kept saying yes, fine…So I said you all go out and look for one and leave me alone.
They came back three days later and said we found it. I said you found it? They said we found it and you have to come and look at it. I said OK, OK. So the next day I looked at it. It was the building on Georgia Avenue.
It looked nothing like the way it looks now but I said this could work. It had a basement. It had offices in it…I looked at it and said you know this can really work. They wanted $475,000 for it. I went back to my board of directors and said I think we should look at buying this. That was one of the most cantankerous board meetings I ever had. One board member was like you’ve got to be crazy – buying a building when we don’t have the money.
We had a lawyer come and look at our books and look at can we buy this building? The lawyers said yes we can buy it and that’s the perfect spot to get it because they are going to redevelop Georgia Avenue. So you really should get it now…And they were right.
So we purchased the building. Remember how I said Barbara became instrumental? She came in and found the money for us to get the down payment.
Blade: You had enough revenue coming in the make the monthly mortgage payments?
Simmons: Yes, but that’s another story and the genius of Barbara.
After we purchased that building in 2001 we went to the Washington AIDS Partnership because they were our first real funder. They looked at us as their favorite child because they gave me money for my salary when we were just in Rainey’s living room. And they saw how we progressed.
So we drew it all up and we started a capital campaign.
Blade: Do you know how many square feet the building has?
Simmons: I think it’s 66,000 square feet.
Blade: What’s the address of your building?
Simmons: 3636 Georgia Ave., N.W. And it’s in Ward 1.
Blade: Was Jim Graham helpful in dealing with the building?
Simmons: Yes, when Jim Graham was a Councilman. After we got the building and renovated and moved in Jim Graham called me and said I think I can get you some money for your building. He got me a half million dollars.
Blade: Did he mean money from the city?
Simmons: Yeah, from the city…I want to say it came from the Health Department. He gave us $500,000; we used $400,000 for our construction and $100,000 for our programs. He really helped us out. So I’ve always been thankful to Jim Graham for that.
So he said to me – David Catania, who was on the Council then – he said Us Helping Us went to Jim Graham to get some money. And I was like I can’t believe he said that to me. So I said no, we didn’t go to Jim Graham. Jim Graham came to us, and that’s the difference. So I’ve always appreciated Jim Graham for that.
Blade: Can you tell a little about what Us Helping Us has been able to do with your clients and other things since moving into that building?
Simmons: So now we have like 10 different programs. We have a youth program for young men 18 to 29. That’s at our satellite site in Hyattsville. And that’s funded by the CDC. We’ve had that now for five years and the guys are doing tremendous stuff. We’re testing about 3,000 persons a year because we now have a mobile testing van. In fact, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation just gave us $15,000 to buy a new van because we had a big two unit van but it didn’t have running water. And we do HIV testing as well as STD screening. So we screen for everything from syphilis and gonorhea to chlamydia and hepatitis C.
But to do some of those screenings you need to have running water. So we had to get a van that had running water. And we needed $15,000 and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation helped us out. And they gave us $15,000. We are shopping for it as we speak – a brand new van with running water.
We now have a program for HIV-positive women that we’re really proud of and it’s doing great work. Historically, D.C. used us to do the early research on transgender people in 2000.
Jessica Xavier was lobbying the city to start doing research on the needs of transgender people and HIV. They said fine, we’ll do it but since you’re not in business we can’t give you the money. So they said we’re going to give the money to Us Helping Us and Us Helping Us will subcontract with you to do the study and that we’ll subcontract with Jessica.
Once she did that study and we gave it to the health department then they could say we need to fund an HIV prevention program for transgender people because clearly we have found a problem. We have evidence that there is a problem.
So they then gave us money to open the first transgender drop in center and Earline Budd was the head of our center. And we had that for like two years.
Then when the women at the center decided to form their own organization called Transgender Health Empowerment – remember them?
Simmons: So we said OK, fine. So then the Health Department came to us and said OK, they want to start their own organization. We’re going to give you money to give them technical assistance. We want you to get them incorporated. We want you to give them board training and there was one other thing. We gave them board training. And they became their own organization.
So since we did that we didn’t want to compete with them for money so we purposely said we would not seek any transgender funding because we wanted it all to go to Transgender Health Empowerment. And that’s what happened. But as you probably know, a few years ago Transgender Health Empowerment collapsed.
Blade: Yes, they went bankrupt.
Simmons: Yes. So transgender people have been coming to us asking about when we are going to start doing something again. So we’re looking at it.
Our staff is now having a staff meeting for strategic planning. We’re looking at it. We’ve started to do some programming for transgender people again. We don’t have a drop in center but we’re definitely looking to do it because there is a need.
Blade: The write-up released by Us Helping Us about your retirement says the budget is now $2.4 million. Is that about right?
Simmons: It’s $2.5 million.
Blade: And we see that there might have been a little bit of a shortfall in 2014 based on the most recent 990 form?
Simmons: Yes, yes. The way it is we may be short but that’s common for a non-profit. There are years when we come in in the black and years when we come in in the red. I think last year – because we just got our 2015 audit – and we sent it to the bank and the bank said it looks really good. But the May 2016 doesn’t look as good. So in a non-profit business where we’re really grant dependent – and that’s one of the things about Us Helping Us.
And I will admit it. The biggest weakness for Us Helping Us is about 85 percent of our money is government funded, which is bad news because if Donald Trump wins we could go bankrupt overnight. So whoever comes to take my place – and both the board and I have told the search firm – we said whoever you bring in they’re going to need to know how to bring in unrestricted dollars.
Ideally you want to have 50 percent of your money coming in unrestricted and 50 percent coming from the government. We have very little unrestricted money. And that’s one of the reasons we end up often times – not always but often times – with having a shortfall because government money is highly restricted. It only pays for certain things. And you end up with other things that the government will not pay for and thus you have to find money to pay for it and if you don’t find it you end up with a shortfall.
I’m good at writing grants but I’m not good at asking people for money. Give me a 200 page grant that will make me a couple of million dollars and I’m in heaven. I like writing those kinds of grants — the bigger the better. A hundred seventy-five pages, 200 pages – no problem. But asking someone to give me 50 bucks – particularly if I don’t like the person’s politics – it’s really hard for me to do that.
And the new person to replace me is going to have to be really good at that.
Blade: At this point about how many clients does Us Helping Us have?
Simmons: We serve about 3,000 people a year. I think we have about 80 people in case management. For the youth group we have four paid staff over there plus we have volunteers.
Blade: The write-up announcing your retirement says Us Help Us currently has 27 full-time employees. Is that correct?
Simmons: Yes, 27 full-time and about six part-time. We have a couple of vacancies and we have my vacancy that’s coming up. But also our group manager of prevention – we are looking to fill that too. We’re taking resumes for that. I think that’s it that we’re hiring for.
Blade: Some people might want to know what’s next for you after retirement. Do you plan to stay in the D.C. area?
Simmons: Oh yeah. I’m going to stay in the D.C. area. I can’t afford to leave my house. I can’t afford to buy a house in D.C. So now I’ve got to hold onto what I’ve got.
So what do I plan to do? First thing I definitely want to write my book. I’ve wanted to write my memoir for many years now. I have so many stories to tell – about Us Helping Us, my early days in Washington, D.C., about hanging out with Essex Hemphill and Marlin Riggs and doing the film Tongues Untied and helping write the book Brother to Brother – all that stuff. So I definitely want to do a book.
There are two other things I want to do. One is I want to do an intervention, an HIV intervention for young black gay men 18 to 24 who are sexually naïve. And I’m working on that now.
The third thing is I plan to do more international work. I’ve been invited to be a part of the international steering committee for the International Conference on AIDS in Africa. Africa has its own AIDS conference. A lot of people don’t know this. And it’s sponsored by the Society of AIDS in Africa. I think they do it every two years.
I met them when I went to South Africa in July for the World AIDS Conference. And they asked me if I would be on the Steering Committee. And I said yes I would love to. So I’m going to Ketuvah in the end of November for the first meeting because their conference will be in December of 2017. So the first meeting of the steering committee is going to be Ketuvah, West Africa in the end of November. So I’m trying to get my Visas and my shots for that because I’m really excited about that.
So those are my three things – my memoir, developing this intervention, and beginning to do international work. And my life has been one where just fate will happen. So who knows what will come in my lap that I’ll also be doing.
Blade: Thanks so much, Ron.
Simmons: Thank you.
Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead
No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise
Despite having President Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, efforts to update federal civil rights laws to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act are all but dead as opponents of the measure have contorted it beyond recognition.
Political willpower is lacking to find a compromise that would be acceptable to enough Republican senators to end a filibuster on the bill — a tall order in any event — nor is there the willpower to force a vote on the Equality Act as opponents stoke fears about transgender kids in sports and not even unanimity in the Democratic caucus in favor of the bill is present, stakeholders who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said.
In fact, there are no imminent plans to hold a vote on the legislation even though Pride month is days away, which would be an opportune time for Congress to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community by holding a vote on the legislation.
If the Equality Act were to come up for a Senate vote in the next month, it would not have the support to pass. Continued assurances that bipartisan talks are continuing on the legislation have yielded no evidence of additional support, let alone the 10 Republicans needed to end a filibuster.
“I haven’t really heard an update either way, which is usually not good,” one Democratic insider said. “My understanding is that our side was entrenched in a no-compromise mindset and with [Sen. Joe] Manchin saying he didn’t like the bill, it doomed it this Congress. And the bullying of hundreds of trans athletes derailed our message and our arguments of why it was broadly needed.”
The only thing keeping the final nail from being hammered into the Equality Act’s coffin is the unwillingness of its supporters to admit defeat. Other stakeholders who spoke to the Blade continued to assert bipartisan talks are ongoing, strongly pushing back on any conclusion the legislation is dead.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Equality Act is “alive and well,” citing widespread public support he said includes “the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents and a growing number of communities across the country engaging and mobilizing every day in support of the legislation.”
“They understand the urgent need to pass this bill and stand up for LGBTQ people across our country,” David added. “As we engage with elected officials, we have confidence that Congress will listen to the voices of their constituents and continue fighting for the Equality Act through the lengthy legislative process. We will also continue our unprecedented campaign to grow the already-high public support for a popular bill that will save lives and make our country fairer and more equal for all. We will not stop until the Equality Act is passed.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, also signaled through a spokesperson work continues on the legislation, refusing to give up on expectations the legislation would soon become law.
“Sen. Merkley and his staff are in active discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to try to get this done,” McLennan said. “We definitely see it as a key priority that we expect to become law.”
A spokesperson Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had promised to force a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate on the day the U.S. House approved it earlier this year, pointed to a March 25 “Dear Colleague” letter in which he identified the Equality Act as one of several bills he’d bring up for a vote.
Despite any assurances, the hold up on the bill is apparent. Although the U.S. House approved the legislation earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t even reported out the bill yet to the floor in the aftermath of the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill in March. A Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide, however, disputed that inaction as evidence the Equality Act is dead in its tracks: “Bipartisan efforts on a path forward are ongoing.”
Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for inaction on the Equality Act, but with Manchin withholding his support for the legislation they can’t even count on the entirety of their caucus to vote “yes” if it came to the floor. Progressives continue to advocate an end to the filibuster to advance legislation Biden has promised as part of his agenda, but even if they were to overcome headwinds and dismantle the institution needing 60 votes to advance legislation, the Equality Act would likely not have majority support to win approval in the Senate with a 50-50 party split.
The office of Manchin, who has previously said he couldn’t support the Equality Act over concerns about public schools having to implement the transgender protections applying to sports and bathrooms, hasn’t responded to multiple requests this year from the Blade on the legislation and didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who declined to co-sponsor the Equality Act this year after having signed onto the legislation in the previous Congress, insisted through a spokesperson talks are still happening across the aisle despite the appearances the legislation is dead.
“There continues to be bipartisan support for passing a law that protects the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson. “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”
Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom, which continues to be litigated in the courts as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected any day now to issue a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to determine if foster care agencies can reject same-sex couples over religious objections.
For transgender Americans, who continue to report discrimination and violence at high rates, the absence of the Equality Act may be most keenly felt.
Mara Keisling, outgoing executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, disputed any notion the Equality Act is dead and insisted the legislation is “very much alive.”
“We remain optimistic despite misinformation from the opposition,” Keisling said. “NCTE and our movement partners are still working fruitfully on the Equality Act with senators. In fact, we are gaining momentum with all the field organizing we’re doing, like phone banking constituents to call their senators. Legislating takes time. Nothing ever gets through Congress quickly. We expect to see a vote during this Congress, and we are hopeful we can win.”
But one Democratic source said calls to members of Congress against the Equality Act, apparently coordinated by groups like the Heritage Foundation, have has outnumbered calls in favor of it by a substantial margin, with a particular emphasis on Manchin.
No stories are present in the media about same-sex couples being kicked out of a restaurant for holding hands or transgender people for using the restroom consistent with their gender identity, which would be perfectly legal in 25 states thanks to the patchwork of civil rights laws throughout the United States and inadequate protections under federal law.
Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the American Unity Fund, which has bolstered the Republican-led Fairness for All Act as an alternative to the Equality Act, said he continues to believe the votes are present for a compromise form of the bill.
“I know for a fact there is a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” Deaton said. “There is interest on both sides of the aisle in getting something done this Congress.”
Deaton, however, didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on what evidence exists of agreeing on this compromise.
Biden has already missed the goal he campaigned on in the 2020 election to sign the Equality Act into law within his first 100 days in office. Although Biden renewed his call to pass the legislation in his speech to Congress last month, as things stand now that appears to be a goal he won’t realize for the remainder of this Congress.
Nor has the Biden administration made the Equality Act an issue for top officials within the administration as it pushes for an infrastructure package as a top priority. One Democratic insider said Louisa Terrell, legislative affairs director for the White House, delegated work on the Equality Act to a deputy as opposed to handling it herself.
To be sure, Biden has demonstrated support for the LGBTQ community through executive action at an unprecedented rate, signing an executive order on day one ordering federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the fullest extent possible and dismantling former President Trump’s transgender military ban. Biden also made historic LGBTQ appointments with the confirmation of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.
A White House spokesperson insisted Biden’s team across the board remains committed to the Equality Act, pointing to his remarks to Congress.
“President Biden has urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he can sign it into law and provide long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans, and he remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “The White House and its entire legislative team remains in ongoing and close coordination with organizations, leaders, members of Congress, including the Equality Caucus, and staff to ensure we are working across the aisle to push the Equality Act forward.”
But at least in the near-term, that progress will fall short of fulfilling the promise of updating federal civil rights law with the Equality Act, which will mean LGBTQ people won’t be able to rely on those protections when faced with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
D.C. bill to ban LGBTQ panic defense delayed by Capitol security
Delivery of bill to Congress was held up due to protocols related to Jan. 6 riots
A bill approved unanimously last December by the D.C. Council to ban the so-called LGBTQ panic defense has been delayed from taking effect as a city law because the fence installed around the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection prevented the law from being delivered to Congress.
According to Eric Salmi, communications director for D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who guided the bill through the Council’s legislative process, all bills approved by the Council and signed by the D.C. mayor must be hand-delivered to Congress for a required congressional review.
“What happened was when the Capitol fence went up after the January insurrection, it created an issue where we physically could not deliver laws to Congress per the congressional review period,” Salmi told the Washington Blade.
Among the bills that could not immediately be delivered to Congress was the Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act of 2020, which was approved by the Council on a second and final vote on Dec. 15.
Between the time the bill was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser and published in the D.C. Register under procedural requirements for all bills, it was not ready to be transmitted to Congress until Feb. 16, the Council’s legislative record for the bill shows.
Salmi said the impasse in delivering the bill to Congress due to the security fence prevented the bill from reaching Congress on that date and prevented the mandatory 60-day congressional review period for this bill from beginning at that time. He noted that most bills require a 30 legislative day review by Congress.
But the Evangelista-Hunter bill, named after a transgender woman and a gay man who died in violent attacks by perpetrators who attempted to use the trans and gay panic defense, includes a law enforcement related provision that under the city’s Home Rule Charter passed by Congress in the early 1970s requires a 60-day congressional review.
“There is a chance it goes into effect any day now, just given the timeline is close to being up,” Salmi said on Tuesday. “I don’t know the exact date it was delivered, but I do know the countdown is on,” said Salmi, who added, “I would expect any day now it should go into effect and there’s nothing stopping it other than an insurrection in January.”
If the delivery to Congress had not been delayed, the D.C. Council’s legislative office estimated the congressional review would have been completed by May 12.
A congressional source who spoke on condition of being identified only as a senior Democratic aide, said the holdup of D.C. bills because of the Capitol fence has been corrected.
“The House found an immediate workaround, when this issue first arose after the Jan. 6 insurrection,” the aide said.
“This is yet another reason why D.C. Council bills should not be subject to a congressional review period and why we need to grant D.C. statehood,” the aide said.
The aide added that while no disapproval resolution had been introduced in Congress to overturn the D.C. Evangelista-Hunter bill, House Democrats would have defeated such a resolution.
“House Democrats support D.C. home rule, statehood, and LGBTQ rights,” said the aide.
LGBTQ rights advocates have argued that a ban on using a gay or transgender panic defense in criminal trials is needed to prevent defense attorneys from inappropriately asking juries to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is to blame for a defendant’s criminal act, including murder.
Some attorneys have argued that their clients “panicked” after discovering the person against whom they committed a violent crime was gay or transgender, prompting them to act in a way they believed to be a form of self-defense.
In addition to its provision banning the LGBTQ panic defense, the Evangelista-Hunter bill includes a separate provision that strengthens the city’s existing hate crimes law by clarifying that hatred need not be the sole motivating factor for an underlying crime such as assault, murder, or threats to be prosecuted as a hate crime.
LGBTQ supportive prosecutors have said the clarification was needed because it is often difficult to prove to a jury that hatred is the only motive behind a violent crime. The prosecutors noted that juries have found defendants not guilty of committing a hate crime on grounds that they believed other motives were involved in a particular crime after defense lawyers argued that the law required “hate” to be the only motive in order to find someone guilty of a hate crime.
Salmi noted that while the hate crime clarification and panic defense prohibition provisions of the Evangelista-Hunter bill will become law as soon as the congressional review is completed, yet another provision in the bill will not become law after the congressional review because there are insufficient funds in the D.C. budget to cover the costs of implementing the provision.
The provision gives the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the Office of the D.C. Attorney General authority to investigate hate related discrimination at places of public accommodation. Salmi said the provision expands protections against discrimination to include web-based retailers or online delivery services that are not physically located in D.C.
“That is subject to appropriations,” Salmi said. “And until it is funded in the upcoming budget it cannot be legally enforced.”
He said that at Council member Allen’s request, the Council added language to the bill that ensures that all other provisions of the legislation that do not require additional funding – including the ban on use of the LGBTQ panic defense and the provision clarifying that hatred doesn’t have to be the sole motive for a hate crime – will take effect as soon as the congressional approval process is completed.
D.C. man charged with 2020 anti-gay death threat rearrested
Defendant implicated in three anti-LGBTQ incidents since 2011
A D.C. man arrested in August 2020 for allegedly threatening to kill a gay man outside the victim’s apartment in the city’s Adams Morgan neighborhood and who was released while awaiting trial was arrested again two weeks ago for allegedly threatening to kill another man in an unrelated incident.
D.C. Superior Court records show that Jalal Malki, who was 37 at the time of his 2020 arrest on a charge of bias-related attempts to do bodily harm against the gay man, was charged on May 4, 2021 with unlawful entry, simple assault, threats to kidnap and injure a person, and attempted possession of a prohibited weapon against the owner of a vacant house at 4412 Georgia Ave., N.W.
Court charging documents state that Malki was allegedly staying at the house without permission as a squatter. An arrest affidavit filed in court by D.C. police says Malki allegedly threatened to kill the man who owns the house shortly after the man arrived at the house while Malki was inside.
According to the affidavit, Malki walked up to the owner of the house while the owner was sitting in his car after having called police and told him, “If you come back here, I’m going to kill you.” While making that threat Malki displayed what appeared to be a gun in his waistband, but which was later found to be a toy gun, the affidavit says.
Malki then walked back inside the house minutes before police arrived and arrested him. Court records show that similar to the court proceedings following his 2020 arrest for threatening the gay man, a judge in the latest case ordered Malki released while awaiting trial. In both cases, the judge ordered him to stay away from the two men he allegedly threatened to kill.
An arrest affidavit filed by D.C. police in the 2020 case states that Malki allegedly made the threats inside an apartment building where the victim lived on the 2300 block of Champlain Street, N.W. It says Malki was living in a nearby building but often visited the building where the victim lived.
“Victim 1 continued to state during an interview that it was not the first time that Defendant 1 had made threats to him, but this time Defendant 1 stated that if he caught him outside, he would ‘fucking kill him.’” the affidavit says. It quotes the victim as saying during this time Malki repeatedly called the victim a “fucking faggot.”
The affidavit, prepared by the arresting officers, says that after the officers arrested Malki and were leading him to a police transport vehicle to be booked for the arrest, he expressed an “excited utterance” that he was “in disbelief that officers sided with the ‘fucking faggot.’”
Court records show that Malki is scheduled to appear in court on June 4 for a status hearing for both the 2020 arrest and the arrest two weeks ago for allegedly threatening to kill the owner of the house in which police say he was illegally squatting.
Superior Court records show that Malki had been arrested three times between 2011 and 2015 in cases unrelated to the 2021 and 2020 cases for allegedly also making threats of violence against people. Two of the cases appear to be LGBTQ related, but prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not list the cases as hate crimes.
In the first of the three cases, filed in July 2011, Malki allegedly shoved a man inside Dupont Circle and threatened to kill him after asking the man why he was wearing a purple shirt.
“Victim 1 believes the assault occurred because Suspect 1 believes Victim 1 is a homosexual,” the police arrest affidavit says.
Court records show prosecutors charged Malki with simple assault and threats to do bodily harm in the case. But the court records show that on Sept. 13, 2011, D.C. Superior Court Judge Stephen F. Eilperin found Malki not guilty on both charges following a non-jury trial.
The online court records do not state why the judge rendered a not guilty verdict. With the courthouse currently closed to the public and the press due to COVID-related restrictions, the Washington Blade couldn’t immediately obtain the records to determine the judge’s reason for the verdict.
In the second case, court records show Malki was arrested by D.C. police outside the Townhouse Tavern bar and restaurant at 1637 R St., N.W. on Nov. 7, 2012 for allegedly threatening one or more people with a knife after employees ordered Malki to leave the establishment for “disorderly behavior.”
At the time, the Townhouse Tavern was located next door to the gay nightclub Cobalt, which before going out of business two years ago, was located at the corner of 17th and R Streets, N.W.
The police arrest affidavit in the case says Malki allegedly pointed a knife in a threatening way at two of the tavern’s employees who blocked his path when he attempted to re-enter the tavern. The affidavit says he was initially charged by D.C. police with assault with a dangerous weapon – knife. Court records, however, show that prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office lowered the charges to two counts of simple assault. The records show that on Jan. 15, 2013, Malki pleaded guilty to the two charges as part of a plea bargain arrangement.
The records show that Judge Marissa Demeo on that same day issued a sentence of 30 days for each of the two charges but suspended all 30 days for both counts. She then sentenced Malki to one year of supervised probation for both charges and ordered that he undergo alcohol and drug testing and undergo treatment if appropriate.
In the third case prior to the 2020 and 2021 cases, court records show Malki was arrested outside the Cobalt gay nightclub on March 14, 2015 on multiple counts of simple assault, attempted assault with a dangerous weapon – knife, possession of a prohibited weapon – knife, and unlawful entry.
The arrest affidavit says an altercation started on the sidewalk outside the bar when for unknown reasons, Malki grabbed a female customer who was outside smoking and attempted to pull her toward him. When her female friend came to her aid, Malki allegedly got “aggressive” by threatening the woman and “removed what appeared to be a knife from an unknown location” and pointed it at the woman’s friend in a threatening way, the affidavit says.
It says a Cobalt employee minutes later ordered Malki to leave the area and he appeared to do so. But others noticed that he walked toward another entrance door to Cobalt and attempted to enter the establishment knowing he had been ordered not to return because of previous problems with his behavior, the affidavit says. When he attempted to push away another employee to force his way into Cobalt, Malki fell to the ground during a scuffle and other employees held him on the ground while someone else called D.C. police.
Court records show that similar to all of Malki’s arrests, a judge released him while awaiting trial and ordered him to stay away from Cobalt and all of those he was charged with threatening and assaulting.
The records show that on Sept. 18, 2015, Malki agreed to a plea bargain offer by prosecutors in which all except two of the charges – attempted possession of a prohibited weapon and simple assault – were dropped. Judge Alfred S. Irving Jr. on Oct. 2, 2015 sentenced Malki to 60 days of incarnation for each of the two charges but suspended all but five days, which he allowed Malki to serve on weekends, the court records show.
The judge ordered that the two five-day jail terms could be served concurrently, meaning just five days total would be served, according to court records. The records also show that Judge Irving sentenced Malki to one year of supervised probation for each of the two counts and ordered that he enter an alcohol treatment program and stay away from Cobalt.
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