Dr. Ron Simmons
A woman finds blood in her husband’s underwear but can’t find it within herself to bring it up to her husband.
To Dr. Ron Simmons, this is just plain wrong, not to mention symptomatic of a community that has gone in the wrong direction for far too long. But Simmons sees a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel. And he should know. Dr. Ron Simmons has had a lot of experience in the dark tunnel that is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Since 1992, he has raised over $12 million for Us Helping Us, People Into Living, Inc..
UHU first began meeting in 1985 in a popular black gay nightclub in Washington, DC. Today it stands as the area’s only organization geared specifically toward providing HIV-related services to black gay and bisexual men. Under Simmons’ leadership, UHU has become one of the largest gay-identified, black AIDS organizations in the country, with over 16 programs and services, 28 full-time staff and an annual budget of $2 million.
“I think Us Helping Us has a special foundation to it,” says Simmons, the group’s executive director. “Most of the ideas come from the people we serve.”
Those ideas and services are creative and varied. There are classes with a holistic slant towards good health, offering valuable information on proper nutrition, herbal therapies, internal cleansing, stress management and spiritual development. There’s the group’s sponsorship of the Positive Image Performance Company, a playback theater company. Playback theater is an original form of improvisational theater in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot.
Us Helping Us is nothing if not well-rounded in its approach and services. In addition to community forms, risk reduction workshops, case management, and HIV testing and counseling, UHU also offers peer-led support groups for a variety of different needs. The “Brother -2- Brother” discussion group, which convenes twice a month, is the largest regular gathering of black gay men in the area.
“I like the challenge of the work,” says Simmons. “We’re an agency that gives black gay men hope. Not just around HIV, but about being homosexuals.”
In reaching out to the non-infected population of the nation’s Capitol, UHU has become a visible entity at events such as the Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Weekend, the Capital Pride Festival and Kwanzaa celebrations, where the goal is to promote HIV prevention and safer-sex. And on any given night in the DC area, gay men out for a good time might find themselves the recipients of one of 3,000 condom kits distributed weekly in bars, nightclubs and anonymous sex areas frequented by black gay and bisexual men.
The message is one of empowerment and UHU is well-equipped be the messenger. They even get the message out to a demographic often unreachable with an anonymous, “down low” HIV telephone helpline. Simmons says the group has learned a lot of nuances from the experience, including the fact that many of the “down low” callers will phone the line on Mondays to ask about their behavior from the previous weekend.
“We get calls saying things, like, “I’m not gay, but I went to this punk club and I let this guy do such-and-such, is that safe?”
Started in 1998, the helpline has served as many men’s only source of information about AIDS.
An assistant professor of communications at Howard University, Simmons is a member of the Metropolitan Washington Regional HIV Health Services Planning Council, the Executive Committee of the D.C. Mayor’s Advisory Committee on LGBT Affairs and the DC Board of Medicine. For six years, he served as a member of the DC HIV Prevention Community Planning Committee.
He earned a B.A. in Afro-American Studies, a M.A. in African History, and a M.S. in Educational Communications from the State University of New York at Albany. He received his Ph.D. in Mass Communications from Howard University and served as faculty of the Howard University School of Communications for 12 years.
His published works include: “Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Black Gay Intellectuals” in the anthology Brother To Brother: Collected Writings By Black Gay Men, “Sexuality, Television and Death: A Black Gay Dialogue On Malcolm X” in Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, and “Baraka’s Dilemma: To Be Or Not To Be” in Black Men on Race, Gender and Sexuality. He was also a field producer, photographer and cast member of the award winning film, Tongues Untied.
In short, Simmons’s experience runs deep. His journey has also led him to a profound perspective on the subject of AIDS and the black community.
“I need to get our people to start thinking in new and critical ways,” he says. “HIV prevention is about more than just HIV prevention for black folks. There are other issues we need to discuss that impact black experience. The lives of black people were not fabulous before HIV. We need to raise questions, think outside the box. Gay men have to push the dialogue, take our people to next step.”
Simmons wants the black community to examine ideals critical to the equation, ideals such as the belief that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality and that any kind of homophobia is acceptable. He also believes blacks need to challenge their belief in male supremacy and female subjugation, all of which, he says, leads us to negate ourselves as individuals and as a people.
“We’ve got to stop ignoring black girls,” he says, “and redefine brotherhood. Our nieces and nephews are our responsibility. We aren’t going to get out of this thinking the way we’ve been thinking.”
Simmons is a big advocate of dialogue in places like community forms, churches, and PTA meetings and says organizations like Us Helping Us need to push envelope.
“It’s about upsetting a lot of apple carts,” he says.
And saving lives and improving the quality of life at the same time.