Charlie Finlay was a closeted gay high school student when leader Harvey Milk was killed by an angry colleague, Dan White. He can still remember how traumatized he was about the assassination and how it overlapped with his own fears about coming out. Raised a good Irish Catholic boy, Finlay had to fight his own internalized homophobia, as well as the homophobia surrounding him, for years — until he was finally brave enough to come out at the dawn of the AIDS crisis in 1981.
“I finally felt liberated enough to come out,” Finlay said, “and all of a sudden there was this thing. This, ‘Have you heard?’ … It was the scariest time of my life. I was taking my first steps out into the gay community, and I felt so afraid.”
But then Finlay heard about a group of gay men and women coming together in New York City to fight back. That group was Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and knowing these activist-educators were out there helped him feel like he wasn’t alone as a gay man.
“It made me feel so proud to be a gay man,” he recalled.
Finlay officially joined GMHC as an employee doing fundraising in 2004 and he worked there for five years.
“I was here for some really great and [some] hard times,” he said. He left the non-profit in 2008, lured away by the chance to make more money at another organization. Almost immediately, however, he found something missing.
“The piece that was missing was my connection to the community,” he said. So he returned to the fold and began consulting for GMHC in 2012.
Later that year, Finlay’s life changed.
“While I was here consulting, I had some health issues,” Finlay said. He thought at first the problems to be routine. “But I got the news that I had tested HIV-positive in November of 2012.”
He found out in the GMHC offices over a phone call with his doctor. His partner had also tested positive before him.
“I was just shocked,” Finlay said. “I couldn’t believe it. I got off the phone and my first reaction was just to hide it, to tell no one because I felt ashamed that I knew so much about HIV, and that I was still infected."
Today Finlay takes medication daily to suppress his viral load, he and his partner are still together, and he credits his survival to where he was when he got the news: GMHC.
“People here took care of me in a way that was so inspiring and in a way that they do every day, day in and day out. They took care of me, they made sure I was OK,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done had I gotten that news in a different place. And I think there was some, for lack of a better word, divine intervention. There was some reason I got the news here.”
It’s the support Finlay received from the staff members at GMHC that brought him back full time as a fundraiser. And it is that support, he says, that makes GMHC relevant to this day to thousands of HIV-positive people.
In late 2013, GMHC parted ways with its long-time CEO Marjorie Hill (pictured below). She had been the head of the organization for seven years and her departure was a topic of gossip among both health activists and LGBT organization watchers. Though some gay media outlets have criticized Hill, and by extension GMHC, there's no debating that nationally she was one of the most respected leaders of an AIDS service organization in the U.S. She was also one of the few lesbians who was still managing an AIDS service organization in the country (something common in the 1990s as the epidemic grew, but less so once men were able to live longer on antiretrovirals; Laurie Lang at Project Angel Food being the exception).
Regardless of why, or at whose insistence, Hill departed, experts say that an organization is made of up of many people, not just its CEO. With Janet Weinberg in the post on an interim basis, GHMC is sending a strong, clear message that their work isn’t done yet. In fact, expansion is on the ticket in 2014 — and they've got the money to do it.
Like many non-profits, half of GMHC's budget is dependent upon government financing, and Weinberg said the bigger grants are often the most helpful in terms of making a real impact. The organization received three substantial government grants for work this year, perhaps the most exciting to Weinberg is $1.2 million grant that funds them doing a first-of-its-kind pilot program to help HIV-positive people with job training and placement.
“The beauty of that grant is that we believe that one of the pieces that prevents people with HIV from even attempting to work is that if they do, within months, their safety net goes away,” Weinberg said, because any income from work can signal an end to any disability benefits the person might receive. Often people have had to leave their jobs because of periods of severe illness. But many who physically feel ready to return to work are left worrying about the "what ifs."
“That would be a barrier to returning to work," Weinberg said. "If you know that you’ve had spells of illness … [or] that you very well may not succeed, despite how hard you’ve fought just to get the survival benefits that you’re on [you could lose them].”
With the grant, GMHC can set up a program to help people train and re-enter the workforce while navigating obstacles that may stop them them from maintaining a safety net or reaquiring benefits if employment does not work for them, Weinberg explained.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also granted GMHC $1.5 million over five years to expand testing, prevention, and care services for Puerto Rican gay men and other men who have sex with men. The goal is to help Puerto Rican gay and bi men who are at high risk of HIV infection, those who are infected with HIV but unaware of their HIV status, others who know they're positive but have never accessed medical care, or those who have dropped out of care. The program may be more successful than other outreach programs because it will rely on HIV-positive Puerto Rican gay and bi men to recruit others through social networks to get in and get tested, and if positive, to get into care — and stay in care.
The program is a big deal because right now in the U.S., Latino men who have sex with men account for almost one in every four new infections among all gay and bi men. In New York City alone, 68 percent of Hispanic/Latino males diagnosed with HIV are classified as men who have sex with men.