Ron Simmons, an assistant professor at Howard University’s School of Communications before serving for 24 years as executive director of the D.C. AIDS service organization Us Helping Us People Into Living, died May 28 at George Washington University Hospital from complications associated with prostate cancer. He was 70.
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 at the time of his retirement in October 2016.
Those who knew Simmons said his retirement was short lived. Less than a year later in 2017 he launched Ron Simmons Consulting, LLC, a D.C.-based consulting firm that provided for other nonprofit organizations some of the behavioral interventions related to HIV prevention that he had been developing for many years at Us Helping Us.
“This was really Part 2,” said Marsha Martin, Simmons’ collaborator at the consulting firm. “This was something that he said we could develop for the community at large.”
Martin said that up until illness forced him to step back earlier this year Simmons used some of the HIV prevention techniques he developed at Us Helping Us and a new intervention for young black gay men he developed after leaving Us Helping Us to put in place in other parts of the U.S. as well as in Europe and Africa.
Simmons was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He received a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American Studies, a master’s degree in African History and a master’s degree in Educational Communications from the State University of New York at Albany. He received a doctorate degree in Mass Communications from Howard University in D.C.
A write-up about Simmons’ background on his consulting firm’s website says he served on the Howard University faculty for 12 years teaching television production, photography, interpersonal communications and mass communications theory at Howard’s School of Communications.
Simmons told the Washington Blade in a 2016 interview that he came out as gay and became involved in gay rights activities in the early 1970s during his years as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York in Albany. Around the same time, Simmons said, he also became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
He said he moved to D.C. in 1980 to begin his doctorate studies at Howard. Five years later, unbeknownst to him, Simmons said, Rev. Rainy Cheeks and local activist Prem Deben founded Us Helping Us as a volunteer support group for black gay men with HIV at a time when there was no effective treatment for HIV and an AIDS diagnosis was often a death sentence.
As a gay man with HIV, Simmons said he began attending Us Helping Us workshops in 1991, a development he called life-changing.
“At the time, basically no one, no black organization, was telling people with HIV that they could live,” Simmons told the Blade. “Everyone was saying you’re going to die. Us Helping Us was the only black agency that said you can live with this disease.”
Simmons said he believes the “holistic” workshops developed by Cheeks and Deben that involved a regimen of nutrition, stress management, meditation, and exercise helped him survive until the life-saving antiretroviral AIDS drugs became available in the middle and late 1990s.
He said he continued to carry out and refine those types of techniques for helping people with HIV along with working on HIV prevention programs when Cheeks persuaded him to become executive director of the fledgling group in 1992.
Martin said one of Simmons’ major projects since he started his consulting firm in 2017 is an HIV prevention “intervention” workshop he developed for black gay and bisexual men between the ages of 16 and 29. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said African-American gay men in that age group are among those at the highest risk for HIV infection.
Simmons named the workshop Bodeme’ after an ancient West African cultural tradition in which people who would now be considered gay and lesbian were treated with respect and accepted as “Bodeme,’ which in the African Dagara language means “gatekeepers,” according to a write-up on Ron Simmons’ consulting website.
“The goal of the workshop is to build self-esteem and resilience in the participants,” the consulting firm write-up says.
In addition to his work at Us Helping Us and his consulting firm Simmons served as a field producer, photographer and cast member in the award-winning documentary film “Tongues Untied.” He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Gay Research Group; the Harvey Milk Alumni Award from the State University of New York at Albany; and the Heroes in the Struggle Award from the Black AIDS Institute.
DeMarc Hickson, the current Us Helping Us executive director, said a memorial celebration of Simmons’ life would be held in D.C. after coronavirus related restrictions are lifted to the extent that such a gathering could take place. Martin said one of Simmons’ nieces from New York was making funeral arrangements with family members in New York.
“Ron Simmons is our black HIV-positive gay big brother,” Martin said in describing what many consider Simmons’ legacy. “And I think a lot of people in Washington, D.C. would claim him in that role among many of the other roles he played,” she said. “He was their guy. He was their big brother – a mentor, a leader, someone you could lean on, someone you could rely upon, someone you could call in a moment and ask for some advice.”
Added Martin: “I know many people in this country and certainly many in Washington, D.C. would say that Ron Simmons represented a level of leadership and care and commitment and love for community that is to be honored.”