“I have not been a saint,” was Phil Reed’s response when asked whether or not he was shocked after being diagnosed with HIV. Sure, he went through the expected depression and panic, but after surviving the first six months, he moved on and never looked back.
That was 1981. Indeed, Philip Reed moved on to a magnanimous life rich with heroism. A New York Times article once described the native New Yorker as “quick-silver smart, funny, cocky, emotional, profane,” and “very West Side.”
Reed and his twin sister were born to an interracial marriage in 1949, and were raised by their mother and stepfather, both white, in upper-middle-class Manhattan. His childhood was spent at prep schools and Martha’s Vineyard. In college, Reed dropped out of Ohio Wesleyan and obtained conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. After being involved in the 1969 Stonewall riots—viewed by many as the birth of the gay rights movement—Reed spent time in San Francisco as a political activist for gay issues while working as a salesman for Otis Elevator. A decade later, he returned to his hometown and became involved in local politics through his work with his neighborhood block association. Eventually, he left his sales job to become the project director for the East New York HIV/AIDS Project and the director of public affairs for the Hetrick-Martin Institute.
“HIV has, in a way, actually saved thousands of individuals,” Reed once noted, reflecting on his years of experience with countless souls living with HIV/AIDS.
“People have seized their lives when diagnosed, recaptured focus and made something of themselves!”
But if HIV inspires some to better their existence, HIV also exacts a toll on the human spirit. And for an openly gay man like Reed, the toll was a very personal one.
“Most of my friends are dead,” he said. ”There are big holes in me. My life has knocked a certain amount of the arrogance out of me. I’ve been unemployed and disabled, and I did nothing wrong. I’ve had to shop for the cheaper can of food.”
One way Reed coped with the struggle is through his personal call to action. From 1998-2005, he was a member of the New York City Council. His District 8 encompassed the Manhattan neighborhoods of East Harlem and Manhattan Valley, a portion of the South Bronx, as well as Randall’s Island, Ward’s Island and Central Park. Despite the fact that he represented a mostly Hispanic population, Reed was the first openly gay African American New York City Council member, as well as its first openly HIV-positive member. From 2002 to 2005 he was the chair of the Council’s Committee on Consumer Affairs.
While in office, Reed gained attention for his work to prevent childhood asthma, his district having one of the nation’s highest rates of the disorder. He also concentrated on measures to increase affordable housing and refurbish neighborhood parks. Reed vigorously opposed Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s plan to relocate the Museum of the City of New York from its location in East Harlem to the Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. The plan was ultimately scrapped and the New York City Department of Education moved to the Tweed Courthouse instead.
Term limits brought and end to his formal representation of the people, but Reed never term-limited his concern for African Americans and AIDS, making an effort to always be ready to engage in HIV advocacy. “We need an holistic approach to fighting the AIDS pandemics,” he said. “Paying attention to your health helps with all of life’s other challenges—and that’s a message people are willing to hear.”
Good advice from a man with his own share of health challenges, with or without HIV. In the mid 90s, Reed underwent 18 months of chemotherapy for multiple yeoman, a virulent form of bone marrow cancer. His doctors were reportedly confounded by the fact that the epic battle never triggered Reed’s HIV to advance to AIDS.
Perhaps the hero was too busy to ever let HIV advance its cause in his body, especially with so much work to do. For many years, he served on the HIV Planning Council, which advises New York City on the disbursement of federal funds received under the Ryan White AIDS Care Act. He also did work with the Harvey Milk High School, a public school administered by the Hetrick-Martin Institute and serving LGBT and questioning youth.
Reed, who was active in the Cesar Chavez-led farm labor movement, never credited HIV with jump starting his life when he decided to focus on public service. That desire he attributed to knowing that he “needed to take every opportunity to do what mattered.”
In recent years, Reed was on disability and used his time to travel, especially to Martha’s Vineyard, the cherished getaway of his childhood.
On November 6, 2008, Philip Reed, who lived with HIV for more than a quarter-century, died at age 59 of complications of pneumonia that resulted from leukemia. He was reportedly very proud of the fact that a biracial African American was running for the presidency, and was overjoyed on Election Night when Barack Obama was declared the president-elect.
A few days later, the hero became a saint.
“The entire city lost a passionate advocate for important public causes,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.