HIV Hero: Gregg Cassin and the Healing Power of Community
Gregg Cassin has an easy smile and a warm twinkle in his eye. He has the kind of face that shows genuine love for you, even if he hasn't met you yet. It's that love that has guided his work in the HIV and LGBT communities, giving healing and hope for over 25 years.
Gregg has been living with HIV for 30 years, and works as an HIV health counselor at San Francisco's Shanti Project. He is a much sought-after speaker and facilitator. He also founded "Honoring Our Experience," biannual retreats that bring people in the HIV community together to share stories, grieve, celebrate one another, and provide a healing experience.
"There is something profound that happens through personal sharing," Gregg said, "the telling of stories that has us recognize our deep connectedness. This became very clear to me many years ago, at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I realized how deeply we needed each other."
Gregg grew up on Long Island in New York, and went to Boston College, a Jesuit Catholic university. While getting his B.A. in Theology, he thought he may have a calling to the priesthood. As a young man who was questioning his identity at that time, he thought the priesthood was a viable option.
"I went and spoke to my spiritual director, talking to him about whether or not I had a vocation, a calling. He took one look at me," Gregg giggled, "and told me I needed to move to San Francisco! Which is exactly what I did."
He moved to California in 1980 to come out of the closet. It was the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and there was no tangible information about the virus. When he saw a handmade poster of a gay man covered in Kaposi's sarcoma, it changed his life.
"It just moved me. I knew it was my future," Gregg said.
Gregg tested HIV positive in 1987. "There was no treatment, and I felt like the only possibility was to go on a journey -- what else could I do? -- to have the fullest and healthiest life possible."
He started going to support groups and meditation meetings, explored the self-help teachings of Sally Fisher, Louise Hay, and Marianne Williamson. "It was so painful [at the time], so incredibly scary," Gregg said. The fear and pain of so many moved Gregg into action: "I felt like it was the work I wanted to do."
In February of 1989, Gregg started the San Francisco Healing Circle. "We hung up posters and handed out flyers in the Castro. The first night we had 37 guys, and within weeks we have over 150 people!" Gregg said. "At this time, when the queer community was so demonized, marginalized and ostracized, nobody was going to save us. We had to turn to each other. At a time when we were so forgotten, we found out we were not what the world thought we were: We were heroic."
Gregg also founded the San Francisco Center for Living, which offered support groups, free massage, meditation and retreats. He helped many struggling with HIV/AIDS to find forgiveness, support and love.
In 1995, he stepped away from the HIV work to focus on his personal life. His T cell count had gotten low, and he went on Social Security Disability. He and his partner at the time also had a daughter. "I became a soccer mom!" he said. "After so much loss and horror, being a parent changed everything."
Gregg's daughter grew up and became more independent, and he also had responded well to modern HIV treatment, making him feel healthy and vibrant. "I knew I didn't want to die on disability," he said.
He returned to work in the HIV community in 2013, leading the first retreat addressing the needs of long-term HIV survivors, to find that stigma and marginalization of people living with HIV still occurred. "Queer people, but especially people living with HIV, feel like they're broken goods, like they're not enough." He started working with the Shanti Project in 2014, and is also active in the long-term survivors community, founding and facilitating the Honoring Our Experience retreats.
"These retreats are by and large for the survivor community, but all are welcome -- women, younger folks, HIV-negative people," Gregg said, explaining the unique needs of people who lived through the AIDS crisis: isolation, depression, guilt. "As a community, we can hold all of that in this room."
Gregg has always believed that through sharing our own journey, we can heal pain and build a stronger community. "It's not just about people dealing with HIV," he said, "it's about this community of people that lived through this unique and profound experience.
"We still don't understand this mystery of why we are so healed by our connection and being together and sharing our stories. There's great power in lifting up and inspiring each other just by listening to each other's stories."
Gregg believes that in finding connection with others, we can find our own self-worth. "It's the journey of every single human being on this planet: We have to come to love and accept ourselves," he said. "When we love and accept ourselves, that's when we start to understand that we have a contribution to make."
Throughout the years, Gregg has been very open and outspoken, and has been seen on national television programs such as Leeza with Leeza Gibbons (1996 and 1997) and the Montel Williams Show (2000), and has been featured in the documentary films Absolutely Positive, That's a Family!, and Last Men Standing. Gregg's contributions to the HIV/AIDS community have been recognized with the Certificate of Special Recognition from the U.S. Congress in 1990, presented by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as well as honors from the City of San Francisco in 1989. Gregg is even a self-taught artist, but considers his greatest accomplishment, however, to be his daughter.
The next Honoring Our Experience Retreat is April 13-15. While the retreat is by and for long-term survivors (+/-), they welcome anyone who feels like they would benefit by joining and sharing in the experience. For information on the retreat, contact Gregg at GCassin@Shanti.org.