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Still Standing After All This Time

June 2, 2011

Phill Wilson

In 1981 I was living in Chicago. I had finally finished school, and I had a job that made my banker mother proud. "Phill works as a marketing director with AT&T," she would tell her friends. And she had every right to be proud. She and my truck driver father had made tremendous sacrifices to make sure I had gotten a great education. I lived on the 24th floor of Doral Plaza, a luxury apartment building on the Chicago's Gold coast -- radio personality Tom Joyner was one of my neighbors. I had come a long way from the Algeld Gardens housing project on the far side of Chicago where I had grown up.

I was 25 years old. The previous summer I had discovered that I was gay. And, I was in love. His name was Chris. He was 30. We'd met at the Club Baths, and I had never met anyone like him. Chris had this mane of black curly hair; he was skinny with bowed legs (it was 1981 and skinny was in); he was funny, and smart. And, he was a communist -- he lived in a collective. I thought he was crazy. He would talk about cooperative living and my eyes would glaze over. Our politics could not have been more different. But he made me feel safe: When I was with him I had no fear. Then it happened. ...

Chris had this cough that would not go away. He had always been skinny, as had I -- we weighed less than 250 lbs. between us. But in 1981 he started losing weight that he could not afford to lose. He came home from a doctor's appointment one day, "What did he say?" I asked.

He answered, "I have swollen lymph nodes."

"Okay, but what about the cough and the trouble breathing?" I asked.

"Well, he wants to do a lymph node biopsy. There's this thing going around among gay men in New York and Los Angeles that has something to do with swollen lymph nodes," he said.

"Well, I have swollen lymph nodes." I told him. Chris looked weird, worried. "Maybe, I should have my lymph nodes biopsied too? We can do it together," I offered -- I wanted to make him feel better. Both of our biopsies came back abnormal. That's all that they could tell us.

By the end of the winter of 1981, I was "over" Chicago winters: I requested a transfer to California. The company was in the middle of the big break up of the Bell system. My boss told me the company wasn't transferring anybody. I looked at him and with the bravado that only a 25-year-old full of himself could muster and said, "You don't understand. In two weeks the movers are coming to move me to California. The question is, when I get to California, will I work for AT&T or MCI? If I were you, I'd prefer to have me on your team rather than the competition." Three weeks later, our car was packed and Chris and I were on the road to Los Angeles with my transfer in my pocket.


During the spring of 1982, Chris and I attended a community meeting at the Department of Water and Power in downtown Los Angeles about this strange new disease called Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome (GRID). By then, we had already lost our first friend, Armando, a member of our softball team back in Chicago, and some of our other friends were sick. I think we knew that Chris was already sick as well, but we were unable to think about that. I needed to feel safe for a little while longer, and he couldn't bear the thought of leaving me alone. Neither of us had any idea of the impending doom we were about to face.

In 1983, I left AT&T. Chris and I started a small giftware-manufacturing business Black Is More Than Beautiful, began to volunteer and donate money to fight GRID -- and pretend to not notice that Chris was very sick. As the years progressed more friends grew ill and we learned that a virus caused the disease, now known as AIDS. In 1986 California placed Proposition 64--a proposal calling for the forced quarantine of all people with AIDS--on the election ballot. Chris and I volunteered for committees opposing its passage. We decided that I would take a leading role in the "No on 64" campaign; Chris would focus on the more radical "Stop AIDS Quarantine" committee.

Many people came together to defeat Prop 64, but by the time of the elections, we could no longer deny Chris' illness. Given Chris' failing health and the amount of time we found ourselves working on AIDS-related projects, we decided to close our growing giftware business, which required that I travel around the country. I went to work for Stop AIDS Los Angeles. Chris and I, along with Chris's best friend Michael Weinstein and others, would later start the AIDS Hospice Foundation, which eventually became the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

At that time I also became concerned that activists, politicians and public health officials were ignoring AIDS in Black communities. For the first time Black women comprised 50 percent of total AIDS cases among women and Black people accounted for 25 percent of new AIDS cases. It was clear: AIDS was not just about white gay men; in fact, AIDS had never been just a white gay disease.

There was no place for Black gays and lesbians to talk about AIDS and get the skills to build the infrastructure we needed to fight the disease in our communities. In an effort to change that, I founded the National Black Gay and Lesbian Conference and, one year later, the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum.

Chris died in 1989. As he had done from the first day I met him, he took care of me. He made sure I was ready before he went. He made sure I had time to figure out who I was and what I was meant to do.

Fast-forward two decades. For the past two years, we have been experiencing an avalanche of scientific breakthroughs: microbicides, new antibodies, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), viral mapping, vaccine development and "treatment as prevention". In addition, our country finally has healthcare reform -- of sorts -- and a national HIV/AIDS strategy.

As someone who has been involved every step of the way -- as someone who has lived with AIDS almost my entire adult life, who barely remembers his life before AIDS, and who has seen the political and public health "hits" and the "misses" -- I know that today we have reached a deciding moment: We have the tools to end the AIDS epidemic.

We owe it to Chris, and to Reggie Williams, my friend and co-founder of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, and to all of the friends and loved ones we've all lost along the way, to use these tools to end this disease. We owe it to our nephews and nieces, to Kali Villarosa, a 14-year-old Brooklyn AIDS activist whose essay appears in this journal, and to young people everywhere not to leave them this mess.

I've seen a lot over the last 30 years, but today I'm scared -- and not of the virus. I'm afraid that we won't do our part. I'm afraid that when people ask us, "What did you do during the plague years?" that the answer will be, "Not enough".

Yours in the struggle, Phill

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This article was provided by The Black AIDS Institute. It is a part of the publication Black AIDS Weekly. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
20 Years of Magic: How One Man's HIV Disclosure Inspired Others
More on the 30th Anniversary of AIDS


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