Dr. Marjorie Hill
“If you can’t talk about the ways you contract HIV, if you can’t exchange information, then people die. This has been the challenge [of AIDS] from the beginning and it continues to be the challenge today. We have much work to do,” says Dr. Marjorie Hill.
She understood very early on that AIDS was more than just a “gay disease.”
In 1982, she received her own personal wake-up call. A friend from her junior college days was sick. “She can’t have GRID,” Hill remembers thinking, referring to the initial name given to the mysterious new illness creeping across the globe. Her female friend didn’t fit the profile for someone with Gay Related Immune Deficiency, later renamed HIV/AIDS. “She couldn’t find a doctor in San Francisco because they didn’t know what to do with women with HIV.”
That was only one of many challenges facing women early in the pandemic. Dr. Hill’s friend dealt with hospital workers too scared to serve her meals and many other public indignities fueled by fear and ignorance. “The first PWA I knew was a Black woman and that has shaped my HIV experience,” says Dr. Hill.
Out of that dark period in history, a hero was born.
Today, Dr. Hill is Chief Executive Officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the nation’s oldest AIDS service and advocacy organization. GMHC provides a continuum of services to 15,000 men, women and children annually, and has created a world-renowned legacy of health care advocacy, promotion of social justice and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Previously, she served as GMHC’s Managing Director for Community Health where she was responsible for the Women’s Institute, the Institute for Gay Men’s Health and coordination of agency-wide community-level health promotion initiatives.
“I’m gonna die anyway of AIDS,” has been the pessimistic point of view of some of her patients over the years. The fatalism, she says, stems from ignorance and a notion that if your relatives are dying of AIDS, you’re also going to die of AIDS. On some level, she sees similarities between the panic of the 1980s and attitudes today. “Kids and adults are scared, some full of the same fears and misconceptions.”
Still, Dr. Hill sees hope instead of darkness. “I’m encouraged every single day,” she says. “GMHC was first in the fight. Through grassroots and advocacy, we’ve created a movement. Every single day I have the fortune of interacting with someone who is a testament to our success, be it a 60-year-old getting her GED, a teenager working on a resume, or someone learning how to demand safer sex with their partner.”
Despite its name (born out of the crisis over two decades ago), GMHC has a very diverse staff and is one of the largest providers of woman services in the country. Twenty-five percent of their clients are African American women (over 60% of clients are people of color). But Dr. Hill is much more than a doctor with a job in the struggle. “Even if I’m getting my hair done, I’m talking about HIV,” she says, adding she constantly challenges herself by asking, “How can I make a difference every day, sometimes in the beauty parlor, sometimes in Congress? The message is the same: HIV is a real and serious public health problem of our time.”
Prior to her tenure at GMHC, Dr. Hill was the Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of HIV/AIDS at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. There, she had administrative oversight for HIV prevention and treatment, and research and housing programs. She was also responsible for all aspects of federally-mandated community planning and for the development of a citywide HIV/AIDS policy. Dr. Hill is especially proud of her work with the historic expansion of Syringe Exchange Programs, as well as enhancing New York’s inter-agency collaboration and the five million male and female condoms distributed annually during her tenure.
With years of experience in the trenches of urban life, Dr. Hill is quite clear on the biggest challenge surrounding the worldwide struggle with HIV/AIDS: “The scourge of stigma. Stigma retards logic and is a barrier for information.”
A licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Hill has made a valiant effort to erase the stigma. She’s consulted and lectured on issues of cultural diversity, HIV/AIDS in communities of color, conflict resolution, organizational devolvement and homophobia. Prior faculty appointments include Yeshiva University, New York Medical College, Pace University and the College of New Rochelle. She has several publications, including the American Psychiatric press release, Mental Health Issues in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities. Dr. Hill has also served on the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, the New York Civil Liberties Union, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and as chair of the Thirteen/WNET Community Advisory Board. She proudly served a seven-year-plus term on the Board of GMHC, as Co-Chair. Dr. Hill currently serves on the board of the Public Health Association of New York, is a Senior Advisor to the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Research, Columbia University and on the Editorial Board of Poz magazine.
Despite her long tour of duty in the struggle, Dr. Hill is nowhere near ready to quit. “I’m a long-haul kind of girl,” she says of the challenge.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say Dr. Marjorie Hill is a long-haul kind of hero.