Gary Paul Wright is the co-founder and executive director of the African American Office for Gay Concerns. The AAOGC is a community based non-profit organization whose mission is to comprehensively serve as a resource for the well-being of gay men of color inclusive of, but not limited to gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities.
December 1, 2017 marks the 29th annual World AIDs Day, first observed in 1988. According to data compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), since the beginning of the HIV/AIDs epidemic more than 70 million people have been infected with the virus worldwide, and more than 35 million people have died of HIV to date. Globally, as of the end of 2016, roughly 36.7 million people were living with HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1.1 million people in the United State alone are living with HIV/AIDs, and 1 in 7 are completely unaware they have contracted the disease.
While statistics are often viewed as discouraging, Wright views them as inspiration to continue and expand the fight against HIV/AIDs. A long-time activist against the disease since the rise of the epidemic in the 1980s, having grown up as a self-proclaimed ostracized member of the LGBT community, Wright discussed his extensive background in the fight to end the scarlet letter of the LGBT community and the progress his endeavors have made from such crusades.
You have garnered a growing reputation as a pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDs. However, not much is known of your personal background. Where were you born, raised, and what effect did your upbringing have on your crusade in HIV/AIDs prevention?
Gary Paul Wright: I was born in Dallas, Texas. I attended North Texas University. Thereafter, I embarked on a tour with the children’s theatre company, Robin Hood Players, which instantly exposed me to the divide-taking place at the time throughout the United States. Growing up black in the 1960s, I already experienced my fair share of racism and ill treatment. However, touring with the Robin Hood Players, I experienced the wrath of some of America’s most bigoted audiences and polarizing cities. This was not just an isolated incident either. What I experienced occurred on a routine basis. I tolerated it for quite some time before I relocated to Los Angeles in 1976.
Did you find Los Angeles to be a saving grace personally and professionally, especially as a gay black male?
GW: I originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in a much more accepting environment. Conversely, I was also living in Los Angeles during the rise and peak of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. While the performing arts have long been perceived as a universally welcoming and accepting industry, many of the plays and performances I was a part of at the time began to introduce the surge of HIV/AIDs as a strictly gay-related immune deficiency. We, homosexuals and much of the LGBT community, began to be depicted negatively in the media. In turn, we began judging each other, some of us treating one another as the enemy, and a majority of us were living in fear. I was driven to start all over again in what was sincerely an extremely depressing and divided period within the LGBT community. After nine years in Los Angeles, working in advertising full-time, and juggling acting gigs on the side, I moved to New York City as a last resort. This was when I began my career in the fight against the monster.
After relocating to New York, how did you manage the seemingly difficult feat of transitioning your career from advertising and performing arts into establishing the African American Office of Gay Concerns?
GW: I liken it to planting seeds, and as time goes on, suddenly you have this expansive garden. I was still working full-time in advertising at the time. During my down time I began volunteering for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. I officially joined the staff in 1986 to initiate programming for gay black men. I created the GMHC’s House of Latex, which recently celebrated its 27th year of providing HIV prevention information, services and outreach to the “Ballroom” and “House” communities. In 1993, I moved on from GMHC to the American Foundation for AIDs Research (amfAR) and later, in 1996, I moved on to the New Jersey AIDs Education and Training Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ). It was at this time where I reached a crossroads, personally and professionally, which really led to the birth of the AAOGC: I met my partner, Peter Oates, and solidified my career in the Garden State.
Tell us — who is Peter Oates?
GW: Peter Oates is the love of my life. He works as a nurse practitioner with the Rutgers University School of Nursing. We actually tied the knot on Worlds AIDs Day four years ago: December 1st 2013.
Once in New Jersey, what was the catalyst that led to the creation of the AAOGC? Was it Peter who encouraged you to establish your own organization?
GW: Once I settled down in New Jersey, while working for UMDNJ, I began the legwork to create what is now the African American Office of Gay Concerns. In 2000, the organization was established. By 2002, the AAOGC began receiving funding from the New Jersey Department of Health to provide HIV prevention services to gay and bisexual men of color. On March 15th 2002, the AAOGC officially opened its doors, and is located today at: 877 Broad Street, Suite 211, Newark NJ 07102.
What programs and services do the AAOGC offer? Are any of your services catered to the transgender community, which has recently been cited as the most neglected sector of the LGBT community?
GW: Long-running prevention and intervention programs include Many Men, Many Voices and The BROTHER Project (Brothers Reaching Out Through Health Education and Risk Reduction). AAOGC has gone on to become a significant source for the LGBT community, welcoming an influx of questioning youths as well as male-to-female transgender clientele. This led to the creation of our peer advocacy program, Thank Goodness I’m Fabulous (TGIF), the only state-funded program specifically designed to recruit and retain transgender women of color in regards to HIV prevention. The focus is still on HIV testing and prevention for gay/bisexual/SGL/MSM men of color however the transgender community, and in particular trans women of color, have grown to become a significant focus for the AAOGC. Statistics have always included trans with MSM, and we began to notice what was good for the gander was not particularly good for the goose. The trans community has different needs, and so we adapted two models entitled Sisters Informing Sisters on Topics of Aids (SISTA-T) and Women Involved in Life Learning from Other Women (WILLOW). I would love to be put out of business as far as HIV/AIDs is concerned. I have been doing this work for 30 years and HIV is still with us. With black men still being the leading at-risk group to be infected by HIV, I am driven to continue the fight until the end.
Do you feel as though there is a divide within our own community?
GW: I do not think divide is the correct term. I specifically feel there is a communal distance within the community when it comes to supporting black gay/bisexual men and black trans women. In my opinion, there are elements of the community that desire to be disassociated from gay black affairs, let alone any stigma of HIV/AIDs. Using Pride festivities as an example, the AAOGC promotes and participates in various gay pride events annually. Yet, when it comes to Newark Pride, other sectors of the community do not support us at all. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that Newark Pride, being a predominantly urban event populated by many African American members of the community, plays a role. This is the type of isolation that makes it difficult for the community to progress as a whole and support one another without hesitation or resentment. Every letter in LGBT represents a minority and it is difficult to continue the fight when your supposed allies say one thing – yet do another.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
GW: The highlight of my career in providing HIV prevention services was the creation of the Status Is Everything HIV Testing Campaign. Cory Booker [Newark’s Mayor back in 2010] came to our aid and allowed us to have an opening at City Hall, billboards throughout the city, ads on the sides of buses, print ads, etc. This campaign united traditional advertising with social media specifically directed towards the LGBT community. It was an extremely exciting time in that we remarkably received extra funding from the CDC and NJDOH. As a result of this success, I was able to present the campaign as a Poster Presentation at the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria that year.
Is it difficult to acquire funding in the tristate region? How competitive is the non-profit industry in particular the LGBT non-profit arena?
GW: The aforesaid campaign period stands out for us because it was a time in which funds were surprisingly generous. As the AAOGC has expanded, the funds have noticeably remained the same for us. It is a tough time because the Department of Health gets federal money, which they then give to us, however, that is being cut left and right. I understand they had to spread themselves thin — yet it still stings.
While funding is always a universal issue, especially in a state such as New Jersey, it’s particularly strenuous in Newark where there is a strong element of charitable competition amongst many relative organizations. As much as the large organizations may not declare it, when it comes to funding, numbers always count. The rivalry is fierce between the AAOGC, North Jersey Community Research Initiative, and Hyacinth Aids Foundation. Then throw in the hospitals and you’ve given birth to an environment in which everyone is aggressively competing yet should realistically be collaborating.
You have a long-standing relationship with Rutgers University. What was your experience working with the university and were you both able to withstand the underlying funding competition?
GW: Despite the competition for funding, the entity that has acted as a diamond in the rough for the AAOGC has been Rutgers. We love Rutgers University and the LGBTQ Diversity and Resource Office. They have been instrumental to the success of our annual transgender summit, MASCARA, by donating space for us to hold our annual event which features detailed HIV information, panels, guest appearances and the like. This year we actually held our ninth summit on November 20, 2017 to coincide with the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Can you recount some of the organization’s recent accomplishments as well as your own?
GW: In 2014, the AAOGC was one of the organizations to be honored by the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly with a Joint Legislative Resolution. That same year, I was elected to serve a two-year term as Chair of the New Jersey HIV Planning Group having previously served two terms as the Vice-Chair, as well as Chair of the Gay, Bisexual and Men who have Sex with Men Workgroup. I am also a member of the Governance and Executive Committees, the New Jersey Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and Other Blood-borne Pathogens, City of Newark LGBT Advisory Committee and Essex County Executives LGBTQ Advisory Board. Nationally, I serve on the National Advisory Board for the YMSM+LGBT Center of Excellence.
This is a polarizing time for our nation, let alone the LGBT community at large. Any last words you would like to say to our readers?
GW: We must efficiently stop the ‘minoritizing’ of minorities within our own community so we can effectively move forward and more swiftly achieve the universal rights, treatment and respect we deserve as a whole and within our own interconnected groups.