The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, with the guidance of program director Vince Crisostomo, helps positive men find “meaning and purpose beyond current circumstances”
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Michael Kerner
As Vince Crisostomo and I sat and chatted recently, he interrupted our conversation several times now and then to check his phone for messages. Far from being rude, Vince was checking for word about Michael, a friend who, as we spoke, was at the Quest Research center, going through an experimental “functional cure” for HIV that involves drawing, “filtering,” and recirculating the patient’s blood. Several times Vince had to take a call or answer a text from the friend providing Michael’s transportation home from the clinic.
“I’m sorry for the interruptions, Hank,” Vince needlessly assured me. “This is just the sort of thing we do for each other in 50-Plus.”
The “50-Plus” Vince referred to is the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network (“ET50+”), a San Francisco wellness network and social activity group for gay, bisexual, and transgender men over the age of fifty, administered through the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Vince has been the Program Director for a couple of years now. ET50+ was founded in early 2014 by Jeff Leiphart, PhD, and Noah Briones, MFT, to provide older gay/bi/trans men in the Bay Area with opportunities to improve their health and well-being, to connect with their peers, and to give back to their community. ET50+ serves the “AIDS Generation,” those men who were diagnosed when an HIV-positive diagnosis was a virtual death sentence, men who never expected to live into old age, many of whom have been driven into isolation, depression, and anxiety. The group is also open to men who are HIV-negative, those who also endured the worst years of the pandemic along with us and who also lost friends, lovers, co-workers, and family, and thus experienced the same kinds of loss and grief, the same kinds of PTSD, as us HIV-positive folks.
I am very happy that I found 50-plus. For me, it is a brotherhood of my peers and an important part of my life, a coming together of heart-centered men who help and support each other with the joys and challenges that face our demographic. Our leader, Vince Crisostomo…is one of us. He makes it possible for many of us to participate in life in ways that might not be otherwise available to us. He offers alternatives to isolation and encourages everyone’s participation. I love my 50-plus brothers!
When Vince joined SFAF in 2014 as a temporary hire, he brought with him a lifetime of AIDS casework and activism at grassroots, regional, national and international levels—his résumé of HIV/AIDS-related work is longer than this article! Born in 1961 at the Tachikawa USAFB in Japan, Vince is a gay Pacific Islander American of Chamorro descent from Guam. Like many military families, Vince’s moved frequently—from Japan to half a dozen or more U.S. states and to Guam. Vince grew up in a devoutly Catholic family—he was an altar boy—but left the church due to its intolerance of homosexuality. As a twenty-four-year-old in New York City in 1985, Vince began his AIDS-related work, volunteering to visit terminally ill HIV/AIDS patients in hospital. He himself was infected with the virus in 1987.
“I wasn’t diagnosed with HIV until April or May of 1989, but I knew that I had been infected in 1987.” A man with whom he had had sex told Vince, shortly before he died of AIDS, that he had known he was infected before he and Vince had sex; he hadn’t said anything beforehand. “It took a long while for me to find the compassion to forgive him, but I did—I do. I have forgiven him, and myself, with no judgment.” While still in New York City in 1988, Vince met and fell in love with Jesse Solomon, a personal trainer, yoga teacher, and physical therapist who worked with severely disabled children. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1990 and were among the first fifty couples to register at City Hall as domestic partners. On October 6, 1991, Jesse died of AIDS.
“Jesse’s death was devastating, of course. But his spirit informs my work every day,” Vince said.
In 1992, Vince became an HIV/AIDS educator in the Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ community through the GAPA Community HIV Project and the Asian AIDS Project. He traveled to Guam for the country’s World AIDS Day commemoration and was the first Chamorro to come out publicly as HIV-positive. He continued to travel to Guam and the Pacific Area to provide assistance in building an AIDS services network there. In 2001, he moved to Guam to become executive director of the Coral Life Foundation, a community-based organization working on HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific Area. From September 2002 through December 2006, Vince was Director of Field Operations at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing & Health Studies’ DC HIV Project, where he facilitated the involvement of the community in the department’s NIH studies of HIV. He has also served as the Executive Director of 7 Sisters, an alliance of regional Asia Pacific HIV/AIDS networks based in Thailand, and as the UN AIDS Asia Pacific NGO Delegate from 2009 to 2010. Currently Vince is co-chair of the HIV & Aging Work Group of the San Francisco Mayor’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC). He was named one of POZ Magazine’s 100 most influential people living with HIV in 2015.
What I like most about [ET50+] is the camaraderie and meeting guys my own age. Even though I have friends, I still feel isolated in this world. [ET50+] allows me to get out of my house and out of my comfort zone, to mingle with other men like me who have the same issues and problems. It makes me feel not so isolated.
One of the ways ET50+ helps members combat that isolation is with weekly “Share and Support” dinners at the Foundation’s downtown headquarters. Every Wednesday night, members gather for dinner and group discussions of various issues affecting men over fifty. Topics vary from week to week and have included group-centered issues like housing, finances and income, identity, spirituality, and sexuality, but occasionally broaden to other subjects, like a recent discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Honoring the sense that we are older now and, with luck, wiser, discussions sometimes take a “now and then” format; that is, for instance, exploring the meaning of sex then (when we were younger) compared with the meaning of sex now (as we age). These discussions are designed to help members find ways to connect with each other and to move forward together. Other social activities for members include concerts, art exhibit openings, potluck dinners in conjunction with The Billys (a community of hundreds of gay, bi and queer men who gather regularly for retreats and other activities), Giants games, and theater excursions. ET50+ also sponsors a Saturday morning coffee get-together for members to chat, share information about events coming up, and keep track of each other. Recently, sixty members of ET50+ attended a showing of Absolutely Fabulous, the update of the iconic series from the early 1990s, a series many of them remember as a respite from a period otherwise wrought with grief and loss.
The ET50+ group also organizes “Making a Difference” projects. These have included active participation in the June 5th National HIV/AIDS Long-Term Survivors Day and volunteer clean-up events at the National AIDS Memorial Grove. For World AIDS Day 2015, members of ET50+ joined with the elementary school students at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy for INSCRIBE, a commemoration in which the students and members wrote the names of those lost to AIDS in chalk on the sidewalks of Castro Street. “Activities like these,” Vince said, “are important in helping group members build connections among themselves but also connections with the community at large.”
I’ve met a large number of other members who have become close friends. Through the group and associated activities, my outlook changed, my confidence and self-esteem greatly improved, my mental health improved tremendously, and my negative outlook about aging, mine and others’, changed.
In November 2015, the 50-Plus Network added Elizabeth Taylor’s name to the group after receiving a first-of-its-kind grant from the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to sustain the group for the next five years. “I briefly met Taylor at an event in New York City just shortly after Rock Hudson’s death,” Vince told me. “Of course, at the time, I had no idea….The name change is our way of honoring Taylor for her incomparable bravery as an advocate and of thanking the ETAF for their incredible generosity.”
“Oh good! Michael’s at home, resting.” He sighed, visibly relieved, and put his phone away.
“For me, this is the most important, most rewarding part of what we do at 50-Plus,” Vince said. “These guys aren’t just my clients, they are my chosen family, and as a family, we take care of each other.
“I wish everyone could have a job like mine!”
For more information about the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, check out their website at http://strutsf.org/50-plus-network. You can also find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/50plusnetwork and find their next event at www.meetup.com/50-Plus.
For more information about photographer Michael Kerner, log on to: www.kernercreative.com.
Hank Trout writes A&U’s For the Long Run column.