The year was 1982 and, like most other Black gay men in Washington, D.C., George Bellinger, Jr. wasn’t too worried about the mysterious cases of “gay cancer” popping up in New York City and California. It was in the white gay community, not his own , so why worry? “I fell into the same trap as everybody else,” Bellinger says, remembering those days. “I also believed HIV didn’t affect me because it only mattered if you were sleeping with white men.”
It didn’t take him long to realize he and his friends may have been assuming too much. He was working with the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG) at the time, and through that organization decided to volunteer as a “buddy”—a system in which people are paired with those becoming ill to help create a support network. It was just something Bellinger was going to do in his spare time while working full-time as a dancer and choreographer. And he figured he was signing up for a two-year commitment at the most. By then, everyone agreed, this thing would have run its course. It, of course, did not.
Soon, Bellinger’s own friends and associates started getting sick. “By 1984,” he sighs, “I had seen 10 to 20 men I knew die, and it wasn’t just white men.”
So in 1985, again as part of his work with NCBLG, Bellinger helped organize the first national AIDS conference focusing on the Black community. It was shortly after that event that fighting AIDS became his new career. Bellinger abandoned dancing and took a job coordinating programs for Spectrum, a D.C. AIDS service agency. It was the beginning of 16 years of non-profit work and grassroots activism dedicated to combating the epidemic within communities of color. He has worked with populations ranging from young gay men to single mothers, from professionals to substance users, filling roles ranging from street-level outreach worker to executive director. And he was among the early staff members of the Minority Task Force on AIDS—one of the first national Black AIDS policy and advocacy organizations. Today, his work focuses on helping AIDS service groups with what the non-profit management industry calls “capacity building”—or, as Bellinger puts it, “making sure all these wonderful programs that you start this week are still around next year.” He does this both as a private consultant and as the Director of Programs for the Harlem Directors Group, based in New York City.
When Bellinger began his career in the early- and mid-1980s, he had to navigate the same roadblocks faced by most other activists attempting to engage the African American community at large. As an openly gay man, coming from a gay activist organization, he often had to first move people past his sexual orientation. But a much larger stumbling block was that of his HIV status. Bellinger was negative, and everyone he spoke with simply assumed he was positive. This was fine with him at first. As long as they are listening, he reasoned, who cares what they think about the speaker’s HIV status? But ultimately many of the people living with HIV/AIDS with whom Bellinger worked insisted that he start coming out as negative. “People needed to know that negative men also cared,” he explains. “The presumption was that if you are talking about HIV, you are either highly at risk for it or already positive.”
Two decades later, Bellinger is struck by how some of the barriers to effectively dealing with the epidemic in the Black community have not changed. Primary among them is the unwillingness of men to own up to their role in the virus’s spread. “What has not changed is male responsibility,” Bellinger sighs. “I’m unfortunately still thinking that we need some male role models.”
He points to an image of Black men that he argues too many hip-hop artists promote—sexually voracious but indifferent to the women they are having sex with—as the sort we need less of. Too often he hears Black men, both in pop culture and in daily life, refer to women as the vectors of sexually transmitted diseases. When Earvin “Magic” Johnson tested positive, he recalls, too many men began speculating about the “hoochies” who “gave” it to him, rather than considering the fact of his own behavior. “We have to own that we are doing stuff,” Bellinger complains. “When we see these numbers about incidence going up, we have to understand that we are part of that.”
As with many longtime AIDS activists, Bellinger sees that as the first place where others can begin to get involved in the fight—on the personal level, altering individual behavior. The next step, he says, is for us to see that we are part of a past and a future—that those before us helped create our world, and that we must improve upon it for the future. This is the context in which he explains his years of activism. “I got involved because I wanted to make a difference. I stayed involved because I stand on the shoulders of those people who came before me—and of those people who didn’t make it,” he explains. “I do this work because I have to.”