Ron Simmons, Ph.D., the brilliant Washington, D.C.–based educator and activist dedicated to Black lives and HIV/AIDS prevention, died at George Washington University Hospital on Thursday, May 28, 2020, following a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 70 years old.
Simmons was best known for his 24 years of transformative work with Us Helping Us, People Into Living, Inc.—an organization dedicated to improving the well-being of Black gay men and reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS throughout the entire Black community—which he led as president and CEO until 2016. In accordance with his excellence—and in observation of the 30th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—the Obama White House honored his work against the disease by declaring him a Champion of Change on June 10, 2011. Even still, in a 2016 interview with Positively Aware, he forcefully stated that “Black gay men’s lives cannot solely be dealt with around HIV,” leading me to question why so much of what has been written about him only engages with his work at this level.
Reading his incredible column, faggotales, for the Albany Student Press, reveals a deliciously messy wit that went to admittedly absurd lengths to provoke its readers. His efforts did not go unappreciated, receiving scathing critiques from campus gay and Black alliance groups as well as the local paper. Simmons was editor-in-chief of the 1972 college yearbook, which was denounced by the New York State Senate for including anti–Vietnam War and pro–Gay Liberation content. In the faggotales column’s final appearance, he said of the school’s 1973 yearbook that “Torch 73 is one of the worst yearbooks I have ever seen ... Plain and simple. It’s corny, it’s trite, and it’s what you wanted and deserve. It’s like everything else on this campus, especially the student body: Dull, White, and Boring.”
Isaiah Ronald Simmons was an incredible Black, gay, HIV/AIDS rights activist. But he was so much more than that, and his activism at the intersections of various social justice movements predates the 1980s, which is the era that receives a lot of attention from activists and scholars. Simmons blazed a trail for generations of Black gay men who not only work to end HIV, racism, and homophobia but concern themselves with the social justice and human rights issues of their day.
An Early Life of Self-Awakening and Activism
Born in New York on March 2, 1950, to Sunni Muslim parents (Isaiah and Duella), Simmons was raised in the Van Dyke housing projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Heavily bullied as a child, he spent most of his time playing indoors, until he met his first boyfriend at 7 years old. In an interview with A&U Magazine, he explained that this relationship consisted of the two kissing and playing house until puberty hit, at which point the boys he had been chasing developed interests in girls and began calling him a faggot. Exhausted by the relentless bullying, Simmons told his parents that he wanted to kill himself. Their intervention with a doctor did nothing to change his mind. While trying to decide whether to jump off of a building or walk into traffic, he heard a voice in his head—which he considered divine intervention—telling him to wait, because things would get better.
Deciding to listen, he buried himself in his studies. At 14, he participated in a Neighborhood Youth Corp summer jobs program, where he received early training in photography, an influence that would guide his later career. After graduating from Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School as “The Most Likely to Succeed” in 1968, he left home to attend the State University of New York at Albany.
In tandem with his concentration on Afro-American studies, Simmons joined SUNY Albany’s Gay Student Alliance, newspaper, and yearbook. His interest in activism began during his second year, after attending a 1969 student protest against Richard Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia. He inadvertently came out as gay to his parents that same year during a visit home, after they caught him and his boyfriend Leroy “petting pretty heavily.” Though his mother was a “Southern lady,” her response was one of gentle acceptance cautioned by the request that he not let his brothers and sisters find out. This was in sharp contrast to his father’s utter silence, which he would learn years later—after the two became closer—was his father’s way of saying, “I accept you for who you are.”
After achieving his B.A. in 1972, he decided to remain at SUNY Albany to pursue his master’s degree. Discontent with the square, white perspective that dominated campus life, he successfully pitched faggotales, the first college-paper column in history written from a Black gay male perspective. Unfortunately, his displeasure with the school continued, pushing him to drop out. Luckily, he secured immediate employment as Newark, New Jersey’s Board of Education photographer and public-relations coordinator (the city’s superintendent was a fan of Ron’s work on his yearbook). Though he found additional work with local papers as a theater and music critic, he decided to return to SUNY Albany in 1977 to complete his Master's degree of African History in 1978 and a Master of Science in Educational Communications in 1979. In a 2009 interview with the school’s paper, he explained that “African history was the only thing that interested me at that time. My attitude then was that life was too short to waste on studying something you didn’t love. The possibility of being drafted to Vietnam was real, and life was not guaranteed.”
Taking that attitude in stride, he made plans to relocate to Africa to teach communications but was convinced by his mentor, Frank Pogue, Ph.D., to pursue a Ph.D. instead. Attending the 1979 Third Word Conference and march on Washington, D.C. for lesbian and gay civil rights helped launch Simmons’ lifelong love for the city. Determined to stay, he enrolled in Howard University the following year to pursue his Ph.D. in Mass Communications. Concurrent with these studies, he taught as a faculty member of the school while also working with publisher Sidney Brinkley—under the pseudonym “Butch”—as a photographer and writer for Black Light, the first Black gay magazine in the United States.
Documentarian and Catalyst of Black Gay Activism
Having photographed marches and activists since the early ’70s—including Phill Wilson, Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Beam, Barbara Smith, Mabel Hampton, and Tania Abdulahad—Simmons possessed an impressive portfolio of images. In fact, this is how he came to the attention of Black gay filmmaker Marlon Riggs, who called Simmons to request usage of his pictures. The two developed a friendship, which led to them collaborating on Tongues Untied, Riggs’ poetically seminal documentary about Black gay men. On top of appearing as one of the talking mouths in the film, Simmons also worked as one of its field producers and shot its iconic poster image of poet Essex Hemphill holding Riggs from behind in his living room.
Prior to meeting Riggs, Simmons had already finished his doctoral coursework but was procrastinating on his dissertation. He was distracted by HIV panic and the assurance that—having participated in numerous orgies and cruising encounters while a student in Albany—his prospects were doomed. This changed after he was hit by a car while riding his bike. Upon awakening in D.C. General Hospital, the divine voice that had stopped him from committing suicide 23 years earlier returned with a new message: “I have work for you to do, and you need a Ph.D. to do it. And don’t worry about a slow death to HIV, ’cause if I want you, I can take you like that.” He completed his Ph.D. in 1987, six months later.
Remaining at Howard as an assistant professor, his life would undergo a dramatic shift in 1990, after being diagnosed with HIV. In a 2016 interview with the Washington Blade, he recalled, “At the time, basically no one, no Black organization, was telling people with HIV that they could live. Everyone was saying you’re going to die. Us Helping Us was the only Black agency that said you can live with this disease.” Us Helping Us (UHU) was founded by the Rev. Kwabena Rainey Cheeks and activist Prem Deben in 1985 as a group of volunteers to help people living with HIV. Lacking information about effective treatment plans for the disease, the two developed a holistic approach based on nutrition, spirituality, and exercise.
Instead of going on AZT—reasoning that it killed most HIV-positive Black men that he knew within six months—Simmons decided to participate in one of UHU’s 12-week programs. Joining on his birthday in 1991, he found the organization’s comprehensive approach to health and wellness to his liking. By 1992, he had completely embraced the group, moving from participant to active volunteer. Responding to this devotion, he was asked by Rev. Cheeks, who was leaving to begin a new ministry—to take over the group as executive director. Recognizing that the cash-strapped organization could not afford to pay him at his Howard teaching rate, Simmons refused. In a strange twist of fate, despite 12 years of excellent work, Howard declined to renew his teaching contract, convincing him to accept Rev. Cheeks’ offer after all.
Simmons Leads 'Us Helping Us' and Focuses on Culturally Competent Care
During his tenure, Simmons quelled infighting between HIV-positive and negative staff, developed new programing with a focus on communicating to Black sensibilities (including accepting the reality of some men’s adoption of DL-life and discomfort with gay or bi labels), raised cumulatively over $30 million dollars, and secured the organization’s building on Georgia Avenue—making it the first Black gay HIV organization to own its own building—laying down roots for Black people of all backgrounds to find solidarity with each other. Under Simmons’ leadership, USU would also go on to design numerous CDC-funded evidence-based prevention initiatives and become one of the first HIV organizations in D.C. to acquire certification to receive Medicaid reimbursement for the delivery of mental health and behavioral health services, after the Affordable Care Act was passed.
Longtime HIV/AIDS activist Marsha Martin, D.S.W.—who first met Simmons when she was Donna Shalala’s special assistant during the Clinton administration—told TheBody that Simmons was ahead of his time in the way he developed services and programming, and wanted his staff to develop skills and expertise to help them advance in their careers.
“People weren’t doing that back then, but he recognized that the groups he was working with needed more,” she said. “In order for them to have more, his workers had to be credentialed and licensed practitioners.”
Working together, the two developed a barbershop outreach program to discuss HIV with Black men in their “sacred space.” “He recognized that this was a place that needed support and grounding in what was going on,” Martin recalled. “You didn’t have to identify as gay or HIV positive, but you had to understand that this is impacting our community.”
Martin explained that this was Simmons’ approach even when working internationally. In addition to researching and finding “the Black folks we needed to talk to about LGBT life, HIV, community safety issues, acceptance issues,” Simmons was fixated on “understanding what type of funding and programming Black Africans representing the LGBT community needed, particularly outside of the traditional government response across the continent.”
“The main problem for Black gay men is not HIV; it’s that we’re trapped in a racist, homophobic, capitalist society,” Simmons told Positively Aware. “If I’m at a table where the only thing we’re gonna talk about is HIV, but we’re not gonna talk about unemployment, housing, education, and the criminal justice system, that’s not gonna work because what’s affecting us is everything.”
Following his retirement from UHU in 2016, after 24 years of leadership, Simmons focused on his Bodemé project, which looked at how one could use traditional beliefs from the Dogon ethnic group of Burkina Faso (made famous by the writings and teachings of Malidoma and Sobonfu Somè) on issues of spirituality, sexuality, and intimacy as a vehicle for HIV prevention, particularly among Black gay men aged 16 to 29 years old. According to Martin, they were discussing new Bodemé sessions before he passed. Even until his final moments, Simmons was thinking about providing people with resources and support.
Simmons’ Legacy Is Remembered By Friends, Family, and Colleagues
A number of noted HIV activists and organizations have remarked on Simmons’ passing.
Black AIDS Institute’s president and CEO, Raniyah Copeland, commented in a prepared statement that “Dr. Ron Simmons was a giant in the HIV movement who fought so that the lives of all Black people mattered. He was boldly and unapologetically Black and a teacher to us all.”
Simmons’ niece, Shanequa Terry, shared in a statement for UHU that “He loved the communities he served and he certainly loved Us Helping Us.”
“It’s fitting that Ron Simmons left our world during a week of unrest and calls for racial justice. Ron is among the last of our Black gay elders who bore the brunt of the HIV epidemic during the ’80s and ’90s," shared Greg Millet, M.P.H., vice president and director of public policy with amfAR. “Others I corresponded with in my youth, befriended or followed are gone. Giants like Essex Hemphill, Assoto Saint, Audre Lorde, Donald Woods, Marlon Riggs, and Craig Harris. Unlike Essex, Audre, or Donald, who I only knew personally for fleeting moments, I feel fortunate to have known Ron for decades. Ron leaves a legacy of stepping up when his community needed him. He served as the faculty advisor for Howard University’s LGBT student group at a time when stigma and homophobia was pervasive enough to derail a gay faculty member’s career.”
When asked how she remembered him, Martin shared, “He was a sparring partner. He was a talented photographer. He was a skilled and gifted writer. He was a great fundraiser for his work and for other innovators that he supported. He helped people. He made himself available to support people. And he was absolutely a family member. He was family to a lot of people. I can lovingly say, he was my big brother. He was our Black, HIV positive, gay, big brother.”
But Ron was also known for his sense of humor and his sense of style.
“There are other aspects of Ron that are unforgettable,” said Millett. “He had an easy smile and a sharp mind that sometimes operated quicker than the thoughts that he wished to convey. Ron was also a flashy dresser who was proud of the many beautiful outfits that he brought back from the African continent or purchased here in the States. More importantly, Ron was a leader who graciously mentored generations of Black gay men. Although he will be missed by many, his legacy will be felt for decades to come.”
The second born of four, Dr. Simmons is survived by a sister, brother, three nieces, one nephew, and five great-nieces and nephews. Us Helping Us, in association with the family, is planning a celebration to honor his life and legacy on Sunday, June 7. Details of the virtual celebration are forthcoming.
Simmons received a number of honors and distinctions in his lifetime. Below are a few notable awards, honors, and publications he achieved.
Ron Simmons was a member of Global Network of Black People working in HIV (GNBPH), District of Columbia’s Board of Medicine, the HIV Prevention Community Planning Group, and the D.C. Regional Commission on Health and HIV. He served on the International Steering Committee of ICASA and the international AIDS conference for African nations.
Simmons was a brilliant writer with numerous influential pieces, including: “Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Black Gay Intellectuals” in Brother To Brother: New Writings By Black Gay Men; “Believing in Male Supremacy Will Not Save Us” in Port of Harlem Magazine; “Sexuality, Television and Death: A Black Gay Dialogue On Malcolm X” in Malcolm X: In Our Own Image; “Baraka’s Dilemma: To Be Or Not To Be” in Black Men on Race, Gender and Sexuality; “The Voice” in For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough; and “Joe, Essex, Marlon, and Me” in Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.
His honors include the Lifetime Achievement Award from Black Gay Research Group, the Harvey Milk Alumni Award from SUNY Albany, and the Heroes in the Struggle Award from Black AIDS Institute. He has been inducted into the National AIDS Education and Services for Minorities’ Black Gay Men Hall of Fame, and was named by POZ Magazine as one of its 2015 POZ 100.