A. Cornelius Baker
Imagine discovering something different about your body—a sore throat, a small lump, even something as simple as ashy skin—and believing it could be a sign of imminent death. That was the reality of those infected with AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. It was also the world in which A. Cornelius Baker became a longtime activist and hero in the struggle.
“My friends and many other gay men were dying and it was awful,” says Baker of those early days. “There was no running from it.”
In 1983, when he was graduated from Eisenhower College/Rochester Institute of Technology, AIDS seemed like a New-York-San-Francisco-and-L.A. thing. By 1986, HIV had spread to his own body.
“The biggest challenge in the early stages was not knowing what was going on,” says Baker. But far from remaining like a deer caught in the headlights, the central New York native became a pioneer in the quest for survival, a role he embraces to this day. “I had to become politically engaged, raising money, talking to politicians.”
Most recently, Baker served as the Executive Director of Whitman-Walker Clinic, the leading provider of prevention, treatment, research and social services to people living with HIV disease in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. From 1996-2000, he served as the Executive Director of the National Association of People with AIDS, where he had started as the organization’s first director of public policy.
Baker has also been on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee Subcommittee on Monitoring the Epidemic; the Technical Advisory Committee for the Gay and Bisexual Men of Color Prevention Needs Assessment of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; and served as co-chair of the 1994 U.S. Public Health Service Minority AIDS Conference. He is currently a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Panel on Clinical Practices in the Treatment of HIV, and has previously served as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service/Infectious Disease Society of America’s Working Group on the Prevention of Opportunistic Infections and the CDC Advisory Committee on HIV, STD and TB. In 2000, he was a founding member of the National Coalition for LGBT Health and was elected as co-chair of the group’s first governing executive committee. With so much HIV/AIDS-related work under his belt, Baker knows the dangers of burnout and hopelessness.
“Our community is running out of energy and ideas and is beset with petty politics,” says Baker. “We need to re-center ourselves around being skillful. We can be just as political and focused and sharp, and move our agenda along as strongly as those who are against us. We need to re-energize our national organizations and political organizations.”
Baker sees the last few years of the pandemic as becoming more challenging, citing the increased access to medication but the lack of a cure. He’s also quick to point out the need for more resources in places like Africa, Southeast Asia, China and Russia. “These people have nothing,” says Baker, who was Confidential Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the National AIDS Program Office. As a Schedule C appointee of President George H.W. Bush’s Administration, Baker acted as an External Liaison Officer from 1989-1992. He was responsible for establishing and maintaining a relationship with state and local government agencies, non-public institutions and advocacy groups.
In 1989, Baker served on the Bush/Quayle Transition Team as a volunteer staff assistant to Ron Kauffman, the Deputy Assistant to the President for Personnel at the White House. Previously, he was administrative assistant to District of Columbia council member Carol Schwartz.
As a volunteer community leader, Baker is a former president and fundraising chairman of the Brother, Help Thyself gay and lesbian community giving campaign of Washington and Baltimore, and was vice-chair of the Metropolitan Washington Regional HIV Health Services Planning Council. In 1993, he received the Courage Award at the Washington AIDS Walk for outstanding leadership in living with HIV disease. In 1998, his accomplishments were honored by the National Lesbian and Gay Health Association, which presented him with the Diego Lopez Award for leadership in HIV/AIDS advocacy. He was also the first recipient of the American Foundation for AIDS Research Award of Courage for Community Building and the National Association of People with AIDS’s Braveheart Award. In addition, Baker was honored by Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington for his support of women’s health and community leadership, and has been recognized by Human Rights Campaign and the Washington, D.C. Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance for distinguished serviced to his home community.
With countless hours and energy dedicated to the struggle with AIDS, both personally and professionally, A. Cornelius Baker is not about to give up. If anything, he possesses a clear vision of what’s needed for the future of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention: “Much more needs to be done to stop transmission and get people into care. We really have to work to bring it back to a place of being about people and people’s daily lives. Put it back at eye level. We need to train people, re-energize people, re-empower those affected. We need to create accountability for leadership. We also need to stop and reflect,” says Baker of the pandemic, now over two decades old. “As my grandmother used to say, ‘Sometimes, you have to sit quietly with the truth.’”