By the age of 17, Peter Oates knew that he was interested in healthcare but wasn’t too sure what area of healthcare he’d ultimately end up in. Born in New Mills, Derbyshire, a small town in the countryside of England, he found himself lost as an adolescent and allowed fate to sort of run its course.
While volunteering for a local hospital, Oates ultimately wound up being accepted into Sheffield University’s dentistry program. “I really didn’t want to do that. I couldn’t see myself looking into other people’s mouths for the rest of my life. I really enjoyed working in the hospital, and that’s how I came about to fall in love with nursing,” Oates said. Oates was hooked and it was the beginning of almost a 50-year career in healthcare.
Eager to begin his new career, Oates applied to and got into Guys Hospital, a hospital located in southern London. “That’s where it all started. I applied in 1979. There was a class of 80, and there were initially two males, and after the class started, I was the only male.”
In 1985, Oates became a registered nurse. After working in surgical and intensive care units throughout Europe, Peter became a private nurse. He ended up becoming the primary care provider to Lord John Spencer, the 8th Earl of Althorp, who’s commonly known as the father of Princess Diana, Princess of Whales.
After working for the late Lord Spencer, Oates was granted a vacation, and he could go anywhere in the world. He ultimately chose San Francisco, California. “They said you’ve been working all this time, you can go anywhere you want on holiday. I sort of got interested in healthcare in the United States.” Oates credits Dr. Kildare, a 1960’s NBC television drama starring Richard Chamberlain, for his interest in healthcare. While in San Francisco, he inquired about a job at the first AIDS unit in San Francisco.
Due to issues with visas and passports, Oates could not land the job he sought, leading him back to Guy’s Hospital to become a night supervisor, where he managed all of the overnight shifts. Unable to let go of his dreams and aspirations of working in the United States healthcare system, Oates soon found himself in California, where he was credentialed and licensed and then eventually applied for a position at University Hospital in Newark and that’s where the next chapter in his life started.
He would soon meet his now-husband, Gary Paul Wright, a longtime HIV/AIDS advocate, and the founder of the African American Office of Gay Concerns, where he currently holds a board seat. The two met in a now-closed bar called Two Potato located on the Greenwich Village’s historic Christopher Street. “I used to call him “Braids” because he had these long braids that went all the way down his back, and he always had these people swarming around him, and I thought to myself, who’s this guy?” Oates said jokingly. At the time, Wright was a well-known LGBTQ rights activist and advocate; everyone knew him, but only his now-husband knew him then as “Braids.”
While living in Los Angeles during the height of the AIDS crisis, Wright decided to move to New York and soon began his life-long career in advocacy and activism by working and volunteering with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. While at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Wright noticed first-hand the disparities that the LGBTQ community, specifically community members of color, were experiencing in terms of healthcare.
“We noticed that all these gay white men in Manhattan began getting all of this healthcare. Where are the Black men, where are the Latinos? Why are they only in Manhattan?” After an immediate conversation between Wright, Oates, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, they quickly formed its “people of color program,” It branched out into the other Burroughs to ensure that all community members had access to adequate healthcare.
In 2000, the couple established the African American Office of Gay Concerns in Newark, where Wright remains the Executive Director. The African American Office of Gay Concerns serves as a resource for the well-being of men of color and gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning communities in Newark. For more than two decades, Wright and his team of advocates have created several projects, including The B.R.O.T.H.E.R. (Brothers Reaching Out Through Health Education and Risk Reduction) Project, an innovative program dedicated to those at high risk for an HIV infection. Other programs include the T.G.I.F. (Thank Goodness I’m Fabulous) Peer Advocate Project, which provides African-American and Latinx trans-youth a safe place. Before founding the African American Office of Gay Concerns, Wright gained valuable expertise as a resources coordinator at AIDS Education & Training Center located at UMDNJ, now known as University Hospital, between 1996 and 2000.
Combined, this power couple has over 80 years of activism and advocacy under their belts. Their story is a story of love, advocacy, activism, and being there for each other and their community. From Los Angeles to New York, and from New York to New Jersey, Wright and Oates answered the call every step of the way.
The Director of Health Care Services at the Rutgers University Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center, Oates is set to retire after decades of hard work. “This isn’t the end. It’s the start of a new chapter. I’m not sure whats’s next. Most likely, I’ll still be volunteering,” Oates said of his retirement.
While for Wright, he’s not quite ready to step down anytime soon from his role as Executive Director. You can bet your bottom dollar that you’ll be able to catch them in Newark, ensuring that the LGBTQ community members there have a safe space to get the resources they need. “You don’t know what the community needs until you ask those questions. The community taught us everything we know. The community taught me how to care for them.”