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Us Helping Us leader tells of 25 years in AIDS work

Longtime advocate Ron Simmons to retire in December

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Ron Simmons, Us Helping Us, gay news, Washington Blade

Ron Simmons of Us Helping Us plans to retire at the end of this year.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

Blade: Sure.

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?

Blade: Yes.

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.

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Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire

Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later

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Fifty years ago this week, 32 gay men were killed in an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.  

The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man. 

“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens. 

Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment. 

For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal. 

On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America. 

As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.

As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” 

For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence. 

Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said. 

Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals. 

“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.” 

Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business. 

“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.” 

The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted. 

Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.

(Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.” 

New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt. 

When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.” 

(Photo by H.J. Patterson/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking. 

Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider. 

By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.” 

Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire. 

“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989. 

Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.

When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire. 

Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing. 

The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference? 

I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation. 

Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered. 

Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.” 

(Photo by Philip Ames/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”

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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings

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The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund

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Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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