For a man who has served at the highest national level of policy and research around HIV, you wouldn’t necessarily think Gregorio “Greg” Millett started out as “this young kid who never thought that I could be an accomplished scientist.” But today, Millett is perhaps our country’s foremost expert on HIV among gay and bi men of color. While working as a part-time contractor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the late 1990s, Millett was selected to head a research project focusing on a sudden spike in HIV transmission rates among gay and bisexual men of color.
“At the time there were no black gay men who were scientists in the [CDC’s] division of HIV/AIDS prevention. And there I was as a contractor… people kind of pointed at me like, ‘Hey, here’s this black, Latino guy who’s gay,’” Millett recalls with a laugh. “I happen to fit the demographic and I knew the population—I was the population—so they gave me a chance.”
Five years later, the epidemiologist would learn he was more a part of this research demographic than even he realized. That’s when he discovered he was HIV-positive.
“There’s this twinge of shame because you’re a scientist doing this type of work, and how could this happen to you,” admits Millett. “But [you] realize that you’re human just like everybody else, and involved in very human situations.” Millett explains that—when it comes to matters of sex and love—we’re all vulnerable to making mistakes in terms of protecting our sexual health, “because [when] you are in love with a person, you let your guard down.”
As a scientist, Millett has published over 40 peer-reviewed research papers, something he is most proud of, particularly because he led the change in the last decade to “how researchers and scientists approach this issue, so that they are no longer essentially victim-blaming these men.”
The scientist explains that previously, when researchers saw these types of disparities around HIV, they would often focus on what that community or demographic was doing wrong. However, the new research showed that men of color who have sex with men were doing many things right in terms of protecting themselves from HIV, so the numbers weren’t making sense. This is what led us to the understanding that—because black communities are disproportionately impacted by HIV—black bisexual and gay men are at greater risk of contracting HIV than their white counterparts. In large part due to the efforts of Millett and his colleagues over the past 20 years, the focus has shifted to the causes of those racial disparities.
Since 2014, Millett has been with amfAR, where he’s vice president and director of public policy. Previously he served in the Obama administration’s Office of National AIDS Policy, as a senior policy advisor—a role in which he was one of three principal writers of President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Millett also helped eliminate the ban prohibiting HIV-positive people from traveling to or seeking residency in the United States.
Another high point in Millett’s career came during his time at the White House, in 2012, when he orchestrated an event at which 10 people living with HIV who were doing incredible work in the field were invited to meet President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. “That was a dream come true for me,” say Millett. “It was something I always wanted to do, and we made it happen.”