Jim Graham was born James McMillan Nielson Graham in Wishaw, Scotland, on Aug. 26, 1945. Surely his parents could never have envisioned the road their son’s life would take when they brought him from war ravaged Britain to America to settle in Michigan. Jim lived his life to the hilt in many ways. He was a brilliant man with a huge ego who at times made questionable decisions. He could be arrogant yet his life’s work did much good for many.
The Washington Post reported as a young man Jim was an anti-war activist who said, “It was obvious to anyone who was listening that the United States was planning to forcibly bring the Vietnamese people to their knees at whatever cost. He wore his hair in a ponytail and contemplated returning to Scotland and was relieved when he got a low draft number.” I can understand that sentiment having grown up at the same time living through the turbulent Vietnam War years also protesting the war and having a pony tail.
Jim earned his law degree from the University of Michigan and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. According to the Post, Warren “hired him to help him write his memoirs but the chief justice died before the project began.”
I first met Jim when I volunteered with Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1986. That was the first of many interactions with him over the years. When first meeting Jim it was clear the major turning point in his life was in 1981 when he became president of the board at WWC. The same year according to a history of the clinic posted on its website, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report contains an account of five young gay men who had an unusual cluster of infections. This was the first medical report on what would come to be known as AIDS.”
From that time until he resigned from the clinic to begin his time on the Council of the District of Columbia Jim Graham’s name was inextricably associated with HIV/AIDS. Whitman-Walker began its life as a VD clinic for gay men, part of what then was known as the Washington Free Clinic. By the time AIDS began ravaging the gay community in the District of Columbia Jim had begun to build the clinic into an institution recognized for its work across the nation and around the world. In 1985, the clinic opened the first of what were to become numerous homes for people living with AIDS who were unable to find any other housing. Like so many projects Jim undertook eventually there were questions about how the homes were bought and sold. But when it came to the clinic Jim had a handpicked board and made many decisions on his own as he built the clinic to serve the community in the way he thought best. During his years at WWC Jim was an ever present presence in the community. He dedicated his life at the time to helping those who were suffering. He often told me about how many funerals he had attended saying after each one he would first feel a sense of despair but that would quickly turn into renewed energy to continue to make a difference for those still living. Those were the years when even young men would first turn to the obituary columns each morning to see if any of our friends had died. Jim spent countless hours raising money to build the clinic and keep up with the case load that kept growing. He wanted to see a cure for AIDS but his lasting contribution and fundraising efforts were dedicated to trying to make life better for those living with AIDS.
One of his proudest moments came in 1993 when he introduced Elizabeth Taylor at the dedication of the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center at WWC. The center that Jim fought to build was able to offer more services to the clients of WWC including an eye care center, x-ray facilities, an expanded laboratory, a new dental facility and 12 examination rooms.
By 1998, Jim’s ego was demanding a bigger platform and he applied for the position of executive director of amfAR, the AIDS foundation founded by Elizabeth Taylor and Mathilde Krim, Ph.D. He traveled to California for final interviews with Elizabeth Taylor but in the end didn’t get the job. So he made what some at the time considered an ill-advised decision, to run against Ward 1 Council member Frank Smith. Jim won that race and was to spend the next 16 years on the Council until he was defeated in 2014 by Brianne Nadeau.
His years on the Council were spent fighting for the poor and underserved. While supporting gentrification of Columbia Heights and bringing new retail and new housing he never gave up his fight for more affordable housing and to keep the safety net of government programs for those in need. He was everywhere in his Ward driving his beige VW convertible.
Jim’s outsized personality sometimes got in his way and his arrogance could at times cloud some of the good things he did. There were many sides to Jim Graham as there often are to brilliant and driven people. When he left the Council he shocked many when in an interview with the Blade he said, “I’ve told people I’m in the adult entertainment industry.” Graham had organized and was promoting a male strip show for a club on Georgia Avenue, which he called ‘Rock Hard Sunday.’ He was to do that until his recent passing.
If you look at the totality of Jim’s life it is clear he was dedicated to helping others and did that in many different ways. He put his heart and soul into everything he did. He will be missed and he will be remembered fondly by the many he helped; and with gratitude by the families and friends of those he helped who are no longer with us. Jim, rest in peace, knowing you lived a good life.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.