After more than seven years of service, Kelsey Louie, M.S.W., M.B.A., is stepping down as the CEO of GMHC, the world’s first HIV and AIDS service organization. Since 2014, Louie has strengthened programs, improved the quality of services, reinvested in GMHC’s signature Buddy Program to provide peer-to-peer psychosocial support, and expanded mental-health and substance-use counseling services. He also streamlined and co-located pharmacy services, supportive housing, comprehensive STI testing, and the Terry Brenneis and David Boger Hub for Long-Term Survivors.
In the past year, Louie helped guide GMHC through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to anti-oppression movements such as Black Lives Matter and the “Distance Yourself from Hate” initiatives.
Under Louie’s tenure, GMHC partnered with both the State of New York and New York City in implementing plans to end the AIDS epidemic and fighting for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. He was appointed to Gov. Cuomo’s Task Force to End AIDS and helped develop a blueprint with recommendations.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to be a part of the GMHC family over the last seven years,” said Louie. “I am deeply grateful to our dedicated and passionate staff, as well as our extraordinary clients, for the work that we have done together to end the AIDS epidemic and move us closer to a more just and equitable world.”
Terri Wilder recently sat down with Louie to talk about his long history in social justice work, what led him to get involved in HIV, and some of his defining moments—and lessons learned—as the second-longest-serving CEO of GMHC.
Many Ways to Be an Activist
Terri Wilder: Thanks for speaking with me today.
Before we talk about your time at GMHC, I’d love to talk to you about your life. Where were you born? What was it like for you growing up? And what influenced you to get involved in social justice work?
Kelsey Louie: First of all, thanks, Terri, for having this conversation with me. I’m honored. Let’s see, I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and am very proud of that. I am a proud son of immigrant parents. Growing up as Chinese American in Brooklyn was really interesting. I didn’t live in a Chinese neighborhood, and I went to an elementary school and junior high school that were pretty diverse. So from very early on, I learned the value of diversity. In high school it was still diverse, but it was actually largely Asian at Stuyvesant High School.
What sparked my interest in social justice work was my mother. She, for a very long time, worked at a law firm that did immigration law. She took on many roles there. I think her title was office manager, but she had a very personal approach with the clients, everything from helping them get their businesses set up to helping them pass their citizenship tests, doing translation work. I didn’t realize it, but that had really inspired me, the way she was taking care of her community.
Wilder: Was your mother or others in your family politically active?
Louie: No, they weren’t. I don’t come from a very politically active family. That also kind of shaped my version of activism. I think HIV and AIDS have some of the most powerful and influential activists—but I also learned that there are many ways to be an activist. That’s something that I brought with me into my career.
Wilder: Absolutely. There’s definitely the inside strategy and the outside strategy—and we need both.
You are a social worker by training. How has that particular experience informed your work in HIV, and your work as the CEO of GMHC?
Louie: I love being a social worker. In my early career, I learned very much the importance of relationships, treating people with dignity, treating the whole person and not just their symptoms, and the impact of trauma. I took all of this into my management and leadership style.
I also have an M.B.A., so I feel like I have combined and I’ve developed a really good and effective combination of rigorous business systems, as well as interpersonal skills of a social worker. I like to say that I manage with my M.B.A., but I lead with my M.S.W., and I make decisions with both.
HIV Activism: It Started at a Hair Salon
Wilder: When did you first hear about HIV? Where were you? What do you remember about that time?
Louie: Oh, wow. I knew I was, quote, different, from a very early age. And by different, I mean gay. I used to go to the hair salon with my mother all the time. There were two hair stylists, Johnny and Tony—they were brothers. And I went to this hair salon for years. I had witnessed their transition into their true selves as females. I don’t know that I had a name for it at the time, but this certainly influenced my mother’s acceptance when I came out as gay.
I remember my mother telling me—or I don’t think she told me, I think I overheard—that Tony had passed away. I don’t recall if they said what it was, or [if] they told me. And I don’t know that I knew at the time. But I do remember that when Johnny passed away, I remember I had read enough about HIV/AIDS, and I was old enough to piece things together, that they had both died due to HIV and AIDS complications.
So that was my first real introduction.
Wilder: What year was that?
Louie: I don’t remember the exact year. But it was in the mid- to late ’80s. It was early in the HIV epidemic. Because of my age—I was born in 1975—HIV and AIDS was always part of the sex conversation growing up.
And just a disclaimer, because I know this is very important: Tony, I believe, used the name Toni after the transition to T-O-N-I. I was too young to know if Johnny used a different name. So, just a little asterisk there.
Wilder: It sounds like you were between 10 and 13 years old when you had an awareness that there was something called HIV.
Wilder: And you were aware of folks in the community that had died. When did you first get involved in HIV? What was your entry into contributing in some way to what was happening in the community?
Louie: My social-work career started in youth services and doing substance-use prevention with adolescents and working in the families’ and children’s units of a substance-use agency. Some of the substance-using clients had HIV. So that was my first introduction to the work.
Like many people, I participated in AIDS Walk. That was kind of my first real foray into HIV work and community. I remember just looking around at the crowds, thinking, “Wow.” So many people were at this event supporting what was for me a very secretive thing for a long time. It helped me understand that there was a whole world out there of people who were fighting to end the HIV epidemic and supporting people living with HIV and AIDS.
Wilder: Why did you decide to get involved in HIV? What made you sign up to be part of that first AIDS Walk?
Louie: I remember being in high school, and I think there was a blood donation drive. I remember there was this rule that said essentially that if you were gay that you couldn’t donate blood. I was not out to my high school friends, and I remember having to make some excuse as to why I didn’t want to do it. While I wasn’t sexually active yet, you know, when you’re 17 or 18, you just ... well, I followed the rules.
I remember being so shamed about being gay, which, I mean, there were already lots of other reasons why I felt shame: There were no role models, and there weren’t any images—or not enough positive images—of gay people on TV. It just wasn’t talked about. I remember thinking that this was not right, but I still wasn’t ready to do this work as a career. I didn’t know how to. And, again, it meant coming out.
So, over the years, how I got involved in HIV work was I was in youth services, in child welfare, and a child therapist. I met the brilliant Patrick McGovern. McGovern, at the time, was the CEO of Harlem United. When I met him, I made him my secret mentor. I tell this to a lot of young people today. What’s a secret mentor? A secret mentor is someone who you ask a question and if they answer it, they are your secret mentor. If you develop the relationship enough, they will become your actual mentor. That was Patrick for me.
He eventually recruited me to work at Harlem United, and then I spent seven years there, enjoying the work, feeling like I had a purpose. I worked really hard and had many opportunities, got promoted several times, and, after seven years, left there as the chief operating officer.
Wilder: You left Harlem United to become the CEO of GMHC—and so you are the second-longest-serving CEO in the history of GMHC.
Louie: Yes. I’m very proud of that.
History-Making Moments at GMHC
Wilder: When you reflect on your last seven years as the CEO of GMHC, what are some of the defining moments?
Louie: The first probably is even before I started. The way I described taking on this role is, in a moment of courage I decided to apply for the job and eventually accept the position. Because I think it does take a lot of courage to decide to run GMHC. I have a tremendous amount of respect for everybody who has been a CEO at GMHC, because it does take courage to do this.
What are some defining moments? That was one. Another one was meeting Larry Kramer. We talked about activists—talk about an amazing activist who is very responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives. I think connecting with the clients—each time I connect with a client and see a client achieve goals or move closer to goals, each of those are defining moments. There are so many more. Bringing supportive housing to GMHC. Creating our first trans job fair. I don’t know if you really want me to list them all now, but there are so, so many.
Wilder: Being the head CEO of GMHC is a very high-profile role. So, it would be interesting if you could go back to your childhood and say, “What do you think about being completely out in this very public role?” It would be interesting to see what that child would say.
Louie: Right. I mean, this reminds me of when you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, every season there’s that question: “What would you tell your younger self?” I never—never in my wildest dreams would have thought that I would be a very out and proud gay man, running the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization.
I start every public statement with, “My name is Kelsey Louie. I’m the proud CEO of GMHC.” And I will always be proud of my time here.
Wilder: I want to circle back to the defining moment of meeting Larry Kramer because, while he was a cofounder of GMHC, over the years there was some estrangement. He wasn’t as involved. And it sounds like you were able to cultivate a relationship with him, where he did get involved again.
Louie: That’s something that I’m really, really proud of—reconciling GMHC and Larry Kramer. I think at the time I said something like, “Everybody loves a good fight. But everybody loves more a good reconciliation.” And he attended many of the events at GMHC and was very supportive of our work. He pushed me. He would ask me tough questions often. He wasn’t the only one, though. The community, I feel like, held me accountable to make sure that GMHC was serving its community.
Speaking of the HIV community, there are so many people who are so important to GMHC and the work, people who I have had the honor and privilege of meeting, like Larry Mass, another founder; Peter Staley, activist extraordinaire and hero; Joanne Moore; Demetre Daskalakis; Charles King; and Mark Harrington—all giants in the HIV field, and collectively have saved so many lives and made such advances in HIV and AIDS. I consider it one of my greatest honors and privileges to have met and to work with some of these people.
Wilder: As I mentioned earlier, the role of CEO of GMHC is very high-profile because of what GMHC represents in the history of HIV and also for all the services that it provides to the community in New York.
Part of your role was serving on the New York Governor’s Task Force to End AIDS. Can you talk about that experience and why it was important for GMHC to be at the table?
Louie: That was a great experience, being on the Task Force to End AIDS. First of all, it was intimidating. There are about 61 or 63 experts. It was literally awe-inspiring, being in that room. I remember thinking, “This is so great that everybody is coming together with a common goal.” The product of the blueprint was amazing. It was so great being part of an experience where everybody was working together. The conversations were so, so smart. We had government folks, activists, and heads of organizations. It felt like we were making history, and I’m so, so honored to be part of that.
Wilder: One of the other ways that you made history was by reinvesting in GMHC’s signature Buddy Program. Why was that decision made, and why was it important during your tenure?
Louie: I’m glad you’re asking because it gives me an opportunity to really pay tribute to Sean McKenna. Sean McKenna is the person who pushed me to restart the Buddy Program, in particular to help support long-term survivors. This program is so important.
It’s a little different from the version in the early ’80s. In the early ’80s, it was really to help people almost die gracefully and to support people who are homebound for physical reasons. This newer version of the Buddy Program—actually it’s interesting. I did spend six months at GMHC in 2006 as the coordinator of mental health services, and I was there when the funding decision—or lack of funding—created the need to end the Buddy Program. I remember that. So, being able to bring it back while I was the CEO was, I felt, really important.
A lot of government funding, rightfully so, funds programs that have a large impact. We all need to be consumers of public and private dollars. However, the Buddy Program is a very high-intensity program, meaning that it’s a one-on-one program. That takes a lot of time. You don’t get a lot of volume out of it. However, that one-on-one connection is so vital.
Today, there are fewer people who are physically homebound because of HIV and AIDS, but people are emotionally homebound, especially long-term survivors. That was a group we focused on. And that has 100% to do with Sean McKenna.
Wilder: Being branded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, people think about it as a historically men’s organization. But that’s not true. During your time there, who were some of the important women that contributed to GMHC’s success? What were their roles and contributions?
Louie: That’s a great question. I’m happy to say that three out of the six senior management team members are women—in fact, women of color. That’s Lynnette Ford, Rhonda Harris, and Kishani Moreno. They oversee HR, Programs, and Operations.
For my first five years, Robbie Kaplan, lawyer extraordinaire, was either co-chair or chair of the board. I’m proud that there were not only many women, but also many people of color, who were represented in leadership at GMHC during my time.
And let’s not forget that the two CEOs before me, including the interim CEO right before I got here, were Janet Weinberg as the interim CEO, Marjorie Hill, and Ana Olivera, three very smart and powerful women.
In addition, there are a number of women who have had a significant impact at GMHC, and who have been here for more than 10 years—Antoinette Barkley, Vanessa Campus, Dayana Flores, Olivia Gaillard, Yanira Gomez-Lopez, Lillibeth Gonzalez, Migdalia Martinez, Wanda Nieves, Donna Pine, Alexandra Remmel, Crystal Ruiz, Krishna Stone, and April Watkins.
GMHC would not be the organization it is today without those women.
Hope for a Cure—and an End to Stigma
Wilder: As you reflect back on your time, what are the biggest lessons learned from your experience as the CEO?
Louie: There are many. God gave us one mouth and two ears. So I believe that we should listen more than we speak. The example that I gave, talking about Sean McKenna, was a great example of that. I’ve learned that if we’re going to create services for people living with HIV and AIDS, we need to listen to what they say their needs are. That formula has worked for me, in terms of serving different communities, the long-term survivors, the trans community. It’s so important.
We talk about, in the AIDS communities, the Denver Principles. They’re not just principles that should sit on a bookshelf; they should be principles that are lived and actualized. And so I’ve learned to include people’s voices in decisions at GMHC. That not only goes for the clients that we serve, but also the staff.
Also, just a very simple lesson of treating people with dignity. While I probably first learned that in other places, that was certainly reinforced at GMHC—and the importance of treating people with respect and dignity, regardless of their backgrounds.
Something that I think we all learned in this past year or so—or hopefully everyone has learned—that it’s no longer enough to be not racist, we need to be anti-racist. The impact of racism on so many aspects of this country needs to be addressed. We’ve often talked about the impact of race on HIV/AIDS, the disproportionate numbers [in] Black and Brown communities, and trans communities.
Something that I’m really proud of in this past year is that many of the clients have said that at GMHC they feel that Black lives have mattered. That is something that is really important to me, especially given all of the things that have happened against the Asian community in the past year.
I certainly understand—and understand how important that is.
Wilder: I appreciate your bringing this up. This past year has given, or at least I hope it’s given, people some pause to really think about how we treat each other and what is truly important to value as we live our lives.
Wilder: That is very powerful, to hear that the clients are expressing that to you. I do want to acknowledge, you are a Chinese American, who, this other viral pandemic, COVID-19, your community has been the scapegoat in. The violence towards your community is atrocious—it must be really stressful to be trying to take care of a community as your own community is being attacked. So I want to acknowledge that.
Louie: Thank you.
Wilder: Your last day is coming up: June 25. What do you hope for the future of HIV in terms of people living with HIV and people impacted by the disease? What do you hope all this work will be for?
Louie: That’s a great question. My ultimate hope and dream is for a cure, and a vaccine. Until that happens, I hope that there continue to be great strides in breaking down stigma around HIV. And the importance of U=U—I hope that continues to become more and more prevalent in people’s minds: undetectable people being undetectable are untransmissible. I hope that people with HIV and others impacted by the disease do know that their lives matter and that they are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
Wilder: So, what’s next for you?
Louie: Deep breath. I will be the next CEO of The Door and Broome Street Academy, which are two organizations that are leading the way in terms of youth development. They are comprehensive youth development organizations that I will be equally proud to lead.
As I mentioned earlier, I started my career in youth services, and it will be great to go back to a passion of mine. But GMHC, its clients, its staff, its mission, the organization itself, will always, always have a special place in my heart.
Wilder: I’m assuming that just because you’re moving on doesn’t mean that you won’t have contact with the HIV community and with the LGBTQ community. In your new role, is there programming that intersects with HIV and LGBTQ health?
Louie: Absolutely. At The Door, there are programs for the LGBTQ community. There’s also an FQHC [federally qualified health center] that provides sexual health education and health care services. So, absolutely, there’s that overlap.
But also, I have met some of the most brilliant, inspiring, compassionate, dedicated people in my time in the HIV field, whose relationships and friendships are so significant that I will definitely stay in touch with them. I mean, I’ve met some of my most favorite people here, including you, Terri. I’m going to miss you. For the next few months, I will still play an advisory role to GMHC. I will certainly be a supporter. And everyone reading this article should also be a supporter of GMHC and its work. I’m still on the clock, right?
Wilder: Exactly. Well, Kelsey, you’ve had an amazing career, and you’ve certainly done some amazing stuff at GMHC. I wish you the best of luck. In your next position, I’m sure you will do amazing things, and I’m sure others join me by thanking you for your service and what you’ve been able to do for the community.
Louie: Thank you so much. It’s been, in so many ways, a dream job for a gay Asian social worker living in New York City. I can thank you and the media world so much because the media is so important in terms of disseminating, not just good information, but the stories of the people who are affected by HIV and AIDS. It’s so important to help educate people about HIV, to break down stigma, to build awareness around the importance of addressing the HIV and AIDS epidemic. So, thank you, as well.