Silence=death was a rallying cry publicized by the AIDS activist group ACT UP in the early 1980s. Well before that, black, lesbian, feminist poet Pat Parker wrote, “Where will you be when they come?” Her 1978 poem held up a moral mirror up to the LGBT world, challenging closeted gays and lesbians to forsake the pretentious protection of silence and speak out against the slurs, attitudes, and actions that demean and dehumanize all LGBT people.
“Citizens, good citizens all/parade into voting booths and in self-righteous sanctity/X away our right to life,” Parker wrote. The poem still has profound meaning for many, including Phill Wilson, the long-term HIV-survivor and founder of the highly-regarded Black AIDS Institute who just turned 60.
Wilson was 25 years old in 1981, when he and his boyfriend, Chris Brownlie went to a doctor about their swollen lymph nodes.
“Our doctor didn’t know much,” Wilson says now. Even after their doctor suggested it could be related to a mysterious disease called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), Wilson recalls, “No one had any information.”
Then members of their gay Chicago softball team got sick and died in a matter of weeks. “That’s when it became real.”
Wilson and Brownlie moved to Los Angeles the following spring and got involved in the organization Black and White Men Together. “That’s when it got scary,” he says. “We had four or five friends sick at a time and we realized that nobody [else] gave a damn. Either we were going to die or we were going to have to fight — and still we might die.”
Pondering whether to “die, or fight, or both,” Wilson kept thinking, “I had just met Chris. I had just found myself. I wasn’t ready to let either go.” It was a jarring epiphany. He decided to fight.
“We fought to make sure we did whatever we could to not die — and to make sure our friends did not die.”
In some ways, Wilson was spiritually prepared for the fight. “When you are a poor black kid in the 1950’s living in a housing project on the south side of Chicago, there is a lot your parents cannot do or provide,” Wilson says. “But what they can do is to make sure you know that you are loved and you matter.”
Wilson’s parents also gave him a sense of responsibility and nurtured his early appreciation of his own “privilege.” He recalls starting kindergarten with a friend of his, a girl with darker skin and fewer resources. Although he already knew how to read and tie his shoes, she didn’t. A teacher’s favorite because he was “cute,” Wilson tried to help his friend, but faced disapproval from teachers. The friends were separated and his friend eventually dropped out of school and became a teenage mother. “I blamed that kindergarten teacher,” he says. “To this day, I believe I could have helped her.”
Wilson says, “It was the first time I realized that people could be treated differently because of the way they looked.”
In 1986, being treated differently reached a horrific new level with Proposition 64, a California initiative that proposed rounding up and quarantining people with AIDS in concentration camps, which had been sponsored by antigay right winger Lyndon LaRouche. After defeating the initiative, Wilson, Brownlie, Michael Weinstein, Mary Adair, and others activists founded the AIDS Hospice Foundation, which later became the AIDS Healthcare Foundation — now one of the world’s largest HIV service providers.
This launched Wilson’s 30-year career fighting against AIDS and for civil rights. He became the director of Stop AIDS Los Angeles, then director of public policy and planning for AIDS Project Los Angeles, co-founder of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, Los Angeles City AIDS Coordinator, member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), and eventually, in 1999, founder of the Black AIDS Institute. He’s also become a frequent guest and expert talking about HIV on TV talk shows (including The Oprah Winfrey Show).
Wilson also continued fighting hard to stay alive, taking every HIV drug as it became available (AZT, 3TC, D4T, and others) even as Brownlie succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1989.
By 1997, Wilson says he was on death’s door but still refused to believe it was his time to die. The miracle of combination drug therapy saved his life, as it did for countless others in the late ’90s.
Today, widespread access to highly active antiretrovirals has transformed HIV into a chronic but manageable condition for many, which leads some to believe that the AIDS epidemic is over. Not so, counters Wilson, noting that HIV remains a crisis, particularly in black and Latino communities.
“Our house is on fire!” Wilson proclaims at every opportunity, hoping others listen, heed his call and respond to the emergency. It’s time for activists to stand their ground and fight back.
As Pat Parker might have asked, “Where will you be when HIV comes?”