Dr. Ron Simmons, Us Helping US President & CEO, Works to Support the Health of Black Gay and Bisexual Men
by Candace Y.A. Montague
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sharon Farmer
March 2, 1990. Ron Simmons is laying in bed trying to figure out what to do for his birthday. The phone rings unexpectedly. The caller invites him to a support group for black men with HIV. Ron gives it a slight consideration before he turns down the offer and hangs up. Another call comes with the same invitation as the last call. This time he says, ‘Okay. I’ll go.’ He rises to prepare for a meeting that would ultimately set the course for the next two decades of his life.
Ronald Simmons was born in 1950 to Sunni Muslim parents in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Brownsville, a neighborhood that was once Jewish until the 1960s when it became predominantly Black. The Simmons family, with two sons and two daughters, was one of hundreds of families that resided in a highrise public housing project. Ron describes his childhood as terrible. “I was bullied a lot. In fact I was bullied so much until I just stayed indoors instead of going out to play.”
While playing indoors Ron had his first male to male encounter. It was with Larry, his classmate. It was innocent yet memorable to Ron. “Basically we didn’t know what sex was but baby we played house like you would not believe. We would go in my room and close the door. We would make a [house model] I would walk in and kiss him and make him some food. Boys did stuff like that when they’re young,” Ron recalls with a laugh. But when puberty hit boys did not play like that. The boys that Ron once chased now chased girls. It left Ron out of the scenario and back in his apartment avoiding being bullied.
At age thirteen, Ron decided that he had had enough and wanted to end it all. He revealed his suicidal thoughts to his parents who took him straight to the doctor. The fruitless visit didn’t end his thoughts of suicide at all. “I was still thinking about my plan. I thought jumping off a fourteen-story building was out. There were no guns in the house. I didn’t know enough about drugs to overdose. So I was going to walk into speeding traffic. And a voice in my head said, ‘Don’t do it. Wait until you get older. Things will be different.’ I decided to wait thirteen years [when I turned twenty-six]. If things aren’t better I’ll kill myself then.” That wasn’t the last time that he would hear from “a voice.”
Fast forward the movie now to 1986 in Washington, D.C. AIDS had become a grisly reality although it wasn’t quite defined yet. Men were dying alone weekly. People were so frightened that they wouldn’t even serve AIDS patients food in the hospitals. Ron, now thirty-six years-old, had finished his doctoral coursework but was dragging his feet on his dissertation. “With all that going on I started thinking what the fuck are you doing getting a doctorate? You probably have this disease already. I started thinking about all those orgies I went to and cruising for guys when I was in undergrad. So why do I need a doctorate?” One night while riding on his bicycle, Ron was hit by a car. He woke up in D.C. General Hospital hearing the voice again. “It said ‘I have work for you to do and you need a PhD to do it. And don’t worry about a slow death to HIV cause if I want you I can take you like that’ [snap finger]. Babyyyy! I finished that PhD in six months.” Ron was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.
Picture the nation’s capital in the early 1990s. What a time to be young, black and gay. Sharon Pratt Kelly had been elected the first female mayor. Homicide rates topped over 400 for several years as the crack cocaine drug epidemic ran rampant through the streets. Unemployment rates in D.C. were a whopping 8.5 percent while in neighboring Prince George’s County they were 5.4 percent.
At the same time there was a fire brewing in the LGBT community that was gaining momentum. Black gays were struggling with a binary battle: to be heard and respected by the local government and white gays. Black gays were indiscriminately being asked to present identification at gay clubs frequented by white patrons. In the summer of 1991, the local PBS aired the controversial documentary Tongues Untied, a powerful attestation about being black and gay. The battleground was further defined in 1995 when Tyra Hunter, a transgender female hair stylist, died from injuries sustained in a car accident when paramedics refused to treat her upon discovering her male genitalia.
D.C. also lost a popular public figure to AIDS which accentuated the effect that the disease was having on the gay community. Melvin Lindsey, legendary local radio and television personality, was featured in the Washington Post at a time when the disease had marred his body and image. HIV was withdrawing sons, brothers, and friends in the black community. The numbers on epidemic rates in the city are hard to pinpoint due to an understaffed AIDS office at the District’s Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the number of AIDS cases in the District in 1992 hovered around 1,300. The city was number two on the list of metropolitan areas with 500,000 or more population with a bullet.
With so few choices for support and even fewer treatment options for HIV-positive, black gay and bisexual men had to look within to make it through these turbulent times. Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, founder of Us Helping Us, People Into Living, describes starting a support group specifically for this group. “Back in those days AIDS just hit and nobody knew what it was. I was working at the Clubhouse as one of the managers. It was a non-alcoholic dance club. I started a meditation group and then from the meditation group it rolled over to us taking care of each other. It was about trying to find healthy ways to live.” The support group required everyone to have a partner that they would check in with on a weekly basis. If your partner got sick you would call the leader and everyone would take turns caring for him.
It wasn’t just a battle for healthcare. It was a battle for visibility, respect, and death with dignity. Philip Pannell, a D.C. political dynamo and executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, describes those industrious days with pride. “The issue of HIV and AIDS was at its height. We were getting the message out about the dangers of the virus and we were starting to see more organizations be more sensitive to that. Of course we were still grappling with the issue of homophobia, particularly in black churches and non-profits. Things were pretty energetic.”
Ron joined the group in 1990 and soon became an outspoken support leader. Recognizing the leadership potential in him, Rainey approached Ron to take over as CEO of newly named Us Helping Us. “I said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know what I make? I’m a professor at Howard [University]. You can’t afford me.’” Rainey retreated temporarily and said, ‘I’ll pray on it.’ In 1993, Ron lost his job as assistant professor of communications at Howard. “I said perfect. Now you can run Us Helping Us,” said Rainey. Ron conceded to do it for six months. He didn’t know that it would be the longest and most rewarding six months of his life.
Us Helping Us grew from a windowless, one-room office space with a Tandy word processor to the world’s oldest black gay organization with its own real estate. Ron was a master grant writer who secured thousands of dollars for programs and services to combat HIV. He led support groups, managed staff, and served as the face of UHU to the public. The transformation filled a void in the city. Rayceen Pendarvis, host of the Ask Rayceen show at Martin Luther King Library says there was no plan in place in the early nineties. “We were working without a template. There was no organization in place to address the needs of black gay men. People gathered and we formed ICAN, which was Inner City AIDS Network. Ron took it to the next level. He literally found something that did not exist. He formed partnerships. He fought for education, research, and so many things to address the needs of people of color. He made sure everyone had a voice at the table.”
At one point in time, UHU almost collapsed. Ron was told by the health department that if UHU added prevention for HIV-negative men to their services instead of just treatment they could get more money. After discussing this change with the board of directors, they decided to do it. “Babyyy!! When I told the guys what we had decided to do the shit hit the fan. We had about thirty-five to forty members. It dropped down to eight people in less than two weeks. They didn’t want HIV-negative men as volunteers. They didn’t want them in the building.” Stigma divided UHU into two houses; HIV-positive men who wanted to remain isolated and the HIV-negative men who felt left out of the equation. “They said, Ron it’s like this. If you go to a park and two guys are walking and one is obviously sick, the other one will let you know that he’s the caregiver. They didn’t want that in UHU.” After meetings and negotiations between the groups, the great divide was erased.
Us Helping Us celebrated it twenty-fifth anniversary with its annual Passion For Living fundraiser in October. Dr. Ron Simmons will retire with honor at the end of December. He has indeed set up the template and his successor will have some high expectations to meet. But with any luck he will also have Ron Simmons in the wings whispering wise words of solid advice. He will be watching as always.
“I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself. This movie has been like WHOA!”
For more information about Us Helping Us, log on to: www.uhupil.org.
For more information about photographer Sharon Farmer, log on to: www.sfphotoworks.com.
Candace Y.A. Montague is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in a number of print and online publications including The Washington Post and The Grio.com. Follow her on Twitter @urbanbushwoman9.