David N. Dinkins, New York City’s first—and, thus far, only—Black mayor, died from natural causes at his Upper East Side home in Manhattan on Nov. 23. He was predeceased by his wife, Joyce Burrows Dinkins—who died on Oct. 12—and is survived by their two children, David Jr. and Donna. He was 93 years old.
In writing about his accomplishments, many have neglected to highlight his incredible record as a champion of people living with HIV—or AIDS, as it was known during his tenure. Indeed, Dinkins was ahead of his time in addressing the virus and establishing programs that have come to be recognized as essential to harm reduction and providing care.
At a time when AIDS hysteria and homophobia reigned across the world, Dinkins embraced those who were most vulnerable to infection and fought to provide them with the services that they needed to survive.
In commemoration of his memory, TheBody spoke with and corresponded with three activists and officials who worked with Mayor Dinkins during his mayoral term.
Ronald S. Johnson, who served as New York City’s first official coordinator of AIDS policy, says, “Working with Mayor Dinkins was an honor, a pleasure, and a learning and mentoring experience, all rolled into one.”
The two became acquainted while working with the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. They deepened their relationship during Dinkins’ borough presidency of Manhattan and Johnson’s time as executive director of the Minority Task Force on AIDS.
“Even when he was borough president, he was a public official who was not afraid to deal with the AIDS crisis or the people most affected by it—gay Black and white men and injecting drug users in Harlem—so I always felt that we had a friend in his office. And in his running for mayor, he clearly never shied away from his support for the LGBTQ communities or his recognition of AIDS as a crisis.”
The city’s first HIV planning council was organized in 1990, after the Ryan White Care Act was passed. Johnson was appointed to the council, with Billy Jones, M.D.—who was then the commissioner of mental health and an openly gay Black man—as chair of the council. In 1992, Dinkins asked Johnson to become the city’s first AIDS policy coordinator.
“When he reached out to me to become the first citywide coordinator for AIDS, it was a no-brainer because I knew that this would be a position that had the full support of the mayor and his administration and working with all the commissioners,” Johnson says.
This all came about at a time when gay people and people living with HIV were openly villified by the general public, with government officials such as Sen. Jesse Helms and the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressing their contempt for these communities.
“That included vilification coming from within the Black community,” Johnson says. While he was leading the Minority Task Force on AIDS, the organization received support from the Dinkins administration to create its first scattered-site housing program. “But finding landlords who would rent apartments to people with AIDS was a challenge. When we got an award to build a facility, I met with the planning board for Harlem—and they were, to stay the least, unfriendly and unwilling to support us at the community board level to enable us to build a facility in Central Harlem.
“This was over 20 years ago, but I remember it vividly,” Johnson continues. “I was citing the number of people living with AIDS in Harlem to illustrate the impact that it was having on the community, and the man I was talking to said, ‘Those are the white man’s statistics.’ Moving on—and how can you move on from that?—I said, ‘Considering the number of homeless people and the inadequate housing for people living with AIDS, where are these people to go?’
“The office we were meeting in was in a big building on 125th Street with a window that looked out on the East River. And when I asked, ‘Where are these people to go?’ he just turned and looked at the river. I am not making this up; you literally can’t make this stuff up. I say that to illustrate the degree of stigma, the degree of neglect that was in the Black community.
“But Mayor Dinkins, in his gentlemanly way, persisted and said, ‘This is a problem in all five boroughs. It’s not just the problem of gay men’—although, at that time, that was the most numerically impacted community—‘It is a problem in the Black community, the Hispanic community, and among injecting drug users.’ He recognized that and was fully supportive.
“I want to highlight that he was initially opposed to a sanctioned needle-exchange program that was going on when he entered office. He stopped the program, but he listened to people around him, including Mathilde Krim, Peggy Hamburg, and other advocates in the city who said that it was a public health issue.”
Johnson says that Mayor Dinkins organized a task force to investigate the issue. Though data was limited, they found that the needle-exchange program was needed and did not contribute to drug use as many had feared, which led Dinkins to reinstate it.
“That was a demonstration to me that he was a leader who could say, ‘I was wrong. We need this policy. Let’s get it back.’ It wasn’t just the wisdom to recognize a problem and to see the solution, even when that solution was against his original thinking. That decision demonstrated courage and leadership because there still was a lot of opposition from the police and Black leadership.”
Johnson says that Dinkins was never shy about showing support for anything that he felt was right, even when it flew in the face of common sensibilities. He cites his own disclosure story as proof.
After becoming the city’s AIDS chief, Johnson decided to disclose his HIV status because, he says, “It would have been hypocritical and a lie to be talking publicly and to represent the mayor on such a critical issue without disclosing.”
Upon finding out, Dinkins stated, “I knew that he was gay. I didn’t know that he was HIV positive, and had I known it, I would have leaped more quickly to make the appointment.”
Thinking back to that moment in time, Johnson says, “It symbolized his empathy for people living with AIDS. Not just his support and his duty to respond to AIDS, but his human responsibility to respond to the people living with it. And you knew that it was genuine.
“He always called us his kids; his children,” Johnson continues. “Speaking for myself, but I know I speak for everyone, we were proud of that. We felt that we were his kids and it was not just a whimsical expression. That relationship, even though it was metaphorical, demonstrated how he felt about us, and in a larger sense, how he felt about the citizens of New York. He was there to serve them. And serving them meant that he had to understand them, and to embrace what they were going through, whether it was celebratory or painful. And it didn’t depend upon it being reciprocal.
“He knew there were people in the city who, no matter what he did, would be against him and revile him. But that never stopped him from believing that he was the mayor from the Bronx to Staten Island, and every point east or west of that. He was the mayor—and it was not transactional; it wasn’t based upon your supporting him. You were a New Yorker, and therefore you were a person to be served by him and his administration. And that spirit also embodied the day after his reelection, when he lost. He called those of us in the office of the mayor to City Hall, and one of the things that he said that I still remember is, ‘Mayors come and go, but the city endures.’
“That embodies his spirit; his commitment. He was transitory as a mayor. But the city is permanent. I think that encapsulates what Mayor Dinkins was as a man, as a person, and as a public servant.”
According to Charles King—cofounder and CEO of Housing Works, an organization dedicated to ending AIDS and homelessness—“David Dinkins cared very much about the AIDS epidemic; he particularly cared about its impact on people of color.
“David Dinkins and I became good friends and would continue to argue about what he did and did not do around the AIDS epidemic,” King says. “Back when he was in office and in the heat of the fray, I saw him as the enemy, but in retrospect—particularly looking at Giuliani, Bloomberg, and folks who followed him—I came to appreciate how much he had done for our community. Instead of looking at how to trim the sails, he was constantly looking for how to expand the portfolio. I will also say that he developed an amazingly close relationship with my partner of 15 years and cofounder of Housing Works, Keith Cylar, to the point that he actually came and spoke at Keith’s funeral, which I’m totally grateful for.”
As a sign of Dinkins’ open embrace of people living with HIV, King points to the fact that Dinkins knew about Dennis deLeon’s HIV status when he appointed de Leon as his deputy borough president of Manhattan and, after becoming mayor, the city’s human rights commissioner.
King also credits Dinkins with dramatically expanding the HIV/AIDS Services Administration, increasing housing units, authorizing the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide drug treatment programs, supporting the Latinx community, and setting up the HIV Planning Council in the mayor’s office.
Even after his retirement, Dinkins continued to advocate on behalf of Housing Works and the community, King says, including “leaning on the mayor [Bill de Blasio] to endorse overdose prevention centers.
“And so, talk about having come full circle,” King says. “When I first was coming to know David Dinkins, he didn’t support syringe exchange. So I think that says a lot about his willingness to learn and to change his mind about doing things that were progressive.”
But in thinking of Dinkins’ legacy, King says that “more than any concrete gesture,” what he remembers most is “his openness, acceptance, and embrace of people living with HIV.”
Marsha Martin, who served as the director of the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness under Mayor Dinkins, provided a written statement to TheBody celebrating his memory:
“David N. Dinkins, the gentleman mayor. He may have lost that election—he remained Mr. Mayor till the day he died—our mayor.
He looked extraordinary in a tux. And had such class and style. I had the pleasure of serving in his administration, representing sometimes the mayor and then the mayor’s office on homeless issues. We did some great work because Mayor Dinkins nurtured and trusted us. We were young, professional civil servants—and Mayor Dinkins encouraged us to be ‘out there’ to serve all the people of the city he loved. We were his kids.
I will never forget walking Fifth Avenue during Pride. People would yell, “There is the mayor—there is Mayor Dinkins.” People were so proud to see him walking in the Pride March down Fifth Avenue.
And he was proud to be walking with his staff, representing the best of NYC.
I worked on homelessness, during the Dinkins administration. Those were tough times. We did some good work—opening assessment centers as an alternative to families spending countless evenings in offices waiting to be placed. We worked with then-Gov. Cuomo to create a plan to address homelessness in partnership with the greater NYC community. We also worked with the AIDS office to develop housing for homeless people living with HIV.
We did not get the time to finish our work, because he lost. Giuliani came in under a law-and-order campaign—as though Mayor Dinkins hadn’t pushed for a new initiative—Safe Cities, Safe Streets. He funded an innovative program with the Board of Education to create community centers in schools at the end of the day for families and students, as an antiviolence program.
Mayor Dinkins had great deputies who were equally committed to making NYC the most livable city in the U.S.—if not the world.
In speaking about his loss for reelection to Giuliani, Mayor Dinkins was not shy about citing racism as one of the leading causes. It is similar to the racist fervor that helped sweep Donald Trump into the White House after President Barack Obama’s leadership. Obama embraced people of all backgrounds and supported AIDS research, much like Mayor Dinkins, just as Giuliani cut funding to AIDS service organizations, promoted racist practices, and penalized any organization that criticized him.
It is a stark reminder that even as many recall Mayor Dinkins as a gentle force, he was actually a powerful man driven more by service than establishing a self-serving cult of personality. Most importantly for anyone living with HIV, he was one of the greatest advocates for our community that the world has ever known. He is already missed.”