Diversity & Inclusion

World AIDS Day Interview with Kelsey Louie, Chief Executive Officer of GMHC

GMHC ribbon cutting

When the AIDS epidemic first began to ravage the gay community, a group of activists (Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Lawrence D. Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport and Edmund White) banded together to form the Gay Men's Health Crisis, and at the time, it became the largest volunteer AIDS organization in the world. Since then, the organization has rebranded itself as the GMHC and is committed to ending AIDS.

December 1 has been designated World AIDS Day since 1988, in order to raise awareness, provide education, and remember those who we've lost. To help mark the occasion, we interview Kelsey Louie, who is the CEO of the GMHC.

What does World AIDS Day mean to you and the GMHC?

On World AIDS Day, we remember all those lost to the epidemic and honor those who have been on the frontlines since the earliest days. We also recognize the courage and resilience of the 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States today. GMHC has been an integral part of the fabric of the HIV/AIDS community and remains a vital force in the fight to prevent new HIV infections and ensure all people have equitable access to comprehensive HIV/AIDS services.

While we’ve made much progress in ending the epidemic, World AIDS Day reminds us that this disease remains a public health threat, especially for gay and bisexual men, people of color, and marginalized communities.

How has COVID-19 affected the GMHC community and those with AIDS? What can people do to help?

COVID-19 substantially increased the challenges for those living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. For the safety of our clients and staff, we closed our facility in mid-March and pivoted most of our services to remote delivery using videoconferencing and other technologies. While we have received an overwhelming positive response from our clients to our remote services, we know that Zoom cannot replace in-person interactions.

For our older clients, in particular, COVID-19 has exacerbated social isolation that many of them experience due to living with HIV/AIDS. We are hopeful that the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines next year will allow us to resume our normal operations.

In the meantime, people can help by providing financial support for our services at gifts.gmhc.org or by purchasing essential winter items such as gloves, hats, and scarves, that we will be providing our clients during the month of December. You can purchase the latter directly from an Amazon Wish List for shipment directly to GMHC.

Earlier this year, you wrote a column for The Advocate discussing the discrimination you've faced in the wake of the pandemic, as well as the discrimination the LGBTQ+ community has faced over the years because of the AIDS pandemic. Can you speak to some of the similarities and differences you have seen as the year has gone on? 

During both the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 epidemics, we’ve seen scapegoating and discrimination against different groups of people as the causes of these public health crises. During the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gay men were blamed for the disease. This year, we’ve seen some of our political leaders scapegoat Asian people as the cause of COVID-19, specifically calling it the “China virus.”

In both public health crises, we’ve lacked national leadership to confront these diseases with compassion and evidence-based, public health actions. Instead, they have stoked division and created an “us” vs. “them” mentality.

As an Asian man, I experienced some of this discrimination myself early during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, as this year has gone on, I think we’ve seen more outrage about the vitriol of some of our political leaders. I think this was partly reflected in the outcome of the presidential election.

As an organization founded in response to discrimination, GMHC took a stand against COVID-19 discrimination earlier this year by launching the “Distance Yourself from Hate” campaign. We partnered with leading voices in the arts, entertainment, and fashion industries to spread the message that the HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ communities won’t tolerate prejudice against any group of people.

Have you seen any other parallels between AIDS and Covid-19? 

Both diseases disproportionately affect people of color and those living in poverty who lack access to quality healthcare. Social determinants such as access to stable housing and food also affect health outcomes from people suffering from both diseases. Finally, we see parallels between the stigmatization experienced by people living with HIV/AIDS and those suffering from COVID-19. With both diseases, this stigmatization has been driven by fear of both diseases.

What are some of the things you are optimistic about as we get ready to enter 2021? 

There appear to be multiple effective vaccines against COVID-19 that should soon start being distributed. Hopefully, by later in 2021, the widespread availability of these vaccines should make it possible for GMHC to resume in-person services at our Manhattan facility.

I’m also optimistic about our new national leadership that has already demonstrated that their COVID-19 crisis will be rooted in compassion, science, and unity – rather than prejudice, wishful thinking, and division.

Kelsey Louie

Kelsey Louie, CEO of GMHC

How else can people help?

In addition to the ways previously described, people can support GMHC by purchasing a “Distance Yourself from Hate” face mask for $30 at this website. We’re also starting to gear up for AIDS Walk New York, which is our largest fundraiser of the year and will be held virtually in May 2021. Individuals and corporations can start teams that raise critical funds for GMHC’s lifesaving services. For more information, email Liz Gilchrist at lizg@gmhc.org.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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