The year was 1984 and like many gay men in New York City, Ronald Johnson was scared. Droves of homosexual men were disappearing rapidly, often going from being robust and healthy to becoming sick and dying within a matter of months. Rock Hudson was still in the closet as a man living with AIDS, and the disease had yet to capture mainstream media’s attention, nor was it a major concern of those in charge in the nation’s capital. Scientists were barely getting a grip on the identity of what they would come to call the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. An HIV test was not readily available and many gay leaders were against testing altogether, apprehensive that it would lead to quarantines and discrimination. Panic and horror lurked around every street corner, especially in predominantly gay neighborhoods. Doctors and hospitals were unsure what to do or how to react to this frightening new health crisis.
“I was being confronted with this new disease and the hysteria of the time,” remembers Johnson. “I needed to do something with my fear.”
So he turned to service.
It wasn’t a big leap for Johnson, who was deputy chief of an organization that helped immigrants adjust to life in their new country. He began volunteering at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a nonprofit, volunteer-supported, community-based organization committed to national leadership in the fight against AIDS. At the time, GMHC had just over a dozen employees, and Johnson’s cadre of a couple of hundred volunteers handled all of the organization’s clerical work. Today, the group has thousands of volunteers, a virtual army of employees and a multi-million dollar budget.
Now the group’s Associate Executive Director, Johnson has participated in GMHC’s evolution almost from the beginning. Their mission remains the same: reducing the spread of the virus, helping persons with AIDS maintain and improve their health and independence, and making sure the prevention, treatment and cure of HIV/AIDS continues to be an urgent priority—locally and nationally.
GMHC features a plethora of programs, from a multilingual hotline that responds to over 35,000 phone calls and Internet requests yearly, to meals programs, legal services and client advocacy. Although the name remains the same, today GMHC is about much more than helping gay men. The Women and Family Services program addresses the full range of issues facing females and families at risk for, or living with, HIV and AIDS. Services include substance use counseling, nutritional and legal workshops, support groups, crisis intervention, a food pantry, and child sitting. The Lesbian AIDS Project provides support services, peer education, and HIV prevention for lesbians living with HIV and AIDS in both Spanish and English. Still other programs and services offer a vast array of counseling, support and treatment advocacy on behalf of all of metropolitan New York’s diverse population.
Both the GMHC and Johnson have survived and grown over the years, but not forgotten are the epidemic’s twists and turns over the past two decades.
“What haven’t I seen?” he sighs when asked to reflect on those years, adding, remorsefully, “I’ve watched the incredible expansion of the epidemic.”
Johnson’s early fear quickly transformed into a commitment to make a difference. In 1988, he went on to serve on GMHC’s board, and from there to become the director of the Minority Task Force on AIDS. He’s since served in several leadership roles for the city of New York’s AIDS programs, including as the mayor’s AIDS policy director and co-chair of the Planning Council. He’s also been a leader in the Black gay community, serving on the board of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum. His dedication has taken him all the way to the White House, where he sat on President Clinton’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
When he arrived at GMHC, Johnson was one of only a handful of people of color working with the group, or in AIDS work around the city at all. “No way could we have filled Yankee stadium,” he jokes. “And I will acknowledge that one of the reasons I chose to get involved with GMHC is, even at that point, there were comments, grumblings, complaints about GMHC not serving people of color. I wanted to see for myself.”
The organization, like much of the AIDS movement, has worked steadily, if painfully, to improve its service over its lifetime, Johnson says. And recalling the mid-‘80s debate over whether to open the group’s services to women, Johnson says, “It was not pretty.”
But today GMHC’s staff is more than 50 percent people of color, as are its top two officials. The executive director, Ana Oliveira, is a woman.
“The epidemic drove the change,” Johnson explains. He sees the same thing happening across the AIDS movement, and urges young people of color to join in. “It’s still an epidemic,” he sighs. “And it is still an epidemic that is disproportionately affecting our community. We have a responsibility to get involved.”