VOCAL in NY
Jennifer Flynn Walker, VOCAL-NY cofounder, and AIDS and social justice activist, on ACT UP, affordable housing, the presidential election, and ending AIDS
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
This past summer, on an early June afternoon, I attended the Celebration of LGBT Pride event at City Hall, in New York City, as a guest of actor, activist, SAG-AFTRA member and celebrity host, Ron B. The event featured Ron B. as emcee, and attracted an audience of renowned members of the community, and honored several well-respected and well-recognized individuals for their contributions to the fight for LGBT rights in New York City.
Jennifer Flynn Walker was one of those honored at the event. She stood out the moment she stepped in front of the audience to receive her City Council Proclamation award and give her acceptance speech. It turns out that the lifelong activist is charismatic, and also funny; she can tell a story, and also tell it like it is, fires you up and gets you ready to go, igniting in us all that inner passion to fight for justice for all.
The encounter left me intrigued and dying to find out more about this multi-issue activist. And my wish came true.
“I have not been an activist all my life,” Jennifer Flynn Walker says. Her words take me by surprise. So, sitting across from me in my photo studio, she elaborates, “Nowadays, many people come out at a very early age. To be fair, in my day [some] people came out [at an early age, too],” she says. “I was not that brave. I actually didn’t come out until my early twenties. I spent my entire four years in college in the closet. It was immensely painful for me to admit to myself and to others that I was queer. [Coming out] is a process.”
She was “politically apathetic” at the time. “I cared about things, but I didn’t have a political awakening, maybe because I was suppressing who I truly was.”
After college, where she majored in political science, she went back to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she grew up, and started looking for jobs. “For years I’ve been telling people that I interviewed for 162 jobs,” she says, laughing now at the memory. “I don’t know that I actually counted them at the time, but I [remember] interviewing for a lot of jobs.”
She got hired at the New School, in New York City, to do social research for the graduate faculty division. Although she might not have realized it at the time, during her earlier college years she had become somewhat politicized or at least aware of the racism, and also privilege, present in our society. “I became aware that that was the root cause of social injustice,” she emphasizes. “So I started to see [racism] as social injustice, but didn’t do anything about it.” And yet, that awareness started to change her views, and marked the beginning of her becoming the activist she is today.
She enrolled in a master’s degree program at New School, where she met people like Ben Jealous who later went on to run the NAACP, and who nowadays often does commentary on CNN. “It was a little bit of a case of being in the right place at the right time,” she shares. “It was an interesting time, because [Rudy] Giuliani was coming into office and he was cutting social service programs across the board. And all of us were unifying, [fighting for] all the issues on the Left.”
She got involved in a coalition fighting against tuition hikes. “I was the only queer person [there] at the time, I think,” she says, “and they were like, ‘go get the LGBT panel happening.’” One thing led to another, and she ended up attending her first ACT UP meeting in December 1993. “I think there was a collective deep depression and grief within the people at ACT UP [at the time],” she explains. “And because I was new, I didn’t have the same level of depression. I was ready to work. And so, I took on a lot of tasks pretty quickly. I was in an affinity group called Action Tours—we dropped a banner at Saks Fifth Avenue restaurant café windows, when John Paul II came to New York, and as I was raised intensely Catholic, I had an ‘oh my god, the devil is going to get me’ [moment]. [The news about dropping the banner] interrupted an NFL football game. It was a big deal at the time.”
Once she graduated, she got hired as a case manager at a transitional housing program for homeless people living with HIV and AIDS in New York City. “And there it became maddening to me that every day we would have what I call a Kafkaesque phone conversation where we would know that there was an empty apartment, and that there was a homeless person who was in that housing program and who was going to get kicked out of the program and return to homelessness. And we could not move that person into this empty apartment because the city’s welfare bureaucracy had become, I think, intentionally, an obstacle to getting people in services that they needed. It was the most difficult to navigate form of welfare, and it was never intended to work.”
So, the housing providers in New York City formed a coalition to help solve this issue, and hired Jennifer to form the necessary network to tackle the housing issue in a more systematic way. That’s how she met Joe Bostic and Joe Capestany, who joined her in working on the housing providers coalition. They also wanted to form an organization centered on the needs of homeless people living with AIDS. “And so that’s what we became, a membership organization comprised of providing for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS,” she says.
The housing providers coalition first known as NYCAHN, or New York City AIDS Housing Network, eventually became VOCAL-NY (Voices of Community Activists and Leaders), an independent organization formed, as mentioned on its website, “by a group of progressive AIDS housing providers in the mid-1990s.”
The focus of the housing providers coalition was to provide housing to people living with HIV/AIDS. Jennifer explains why it was important for these individuals to take priority: “[VOCAL] was founded earlier in the epidemic. We did have the Lazarus effect in the mid-nineties, but we didn’t know how long or if it was going to last. In fact, the other two co-founders, Joe (Jose) Capestany and Joe Bostic lost their own personal fights with [the virus] in 2003 and 2004 [respectively].”
VOCAL had the foresight to realize that treatment not only afforded the potential of improved health outcomes for HIV-positive individuals, but that it could also play a role in prevention. “We always [suspected] that if you can get people [living with HIV] in housing, they will [probably] remain on treatment, and we suspected that if they’re on treatment and can get to an undetectable level they will be less likely to [transmit] the virus. [During the late nineties] we did know that [getting people to stay on treatment] could be a great form of HIV prevention [as well as confer obvious health benefits to them].”
Joe Bostic was living in housing for transitional people on parole. He wanted to start a project for people on parole, improve access to medicines, and get individuals connected to medicines before they would get out of prison. Joe Capestany was an injection drug user, hence he was very interested in expanding syringe access programs.
She strongly believes that it is important to provide HIV care to individuals getting out of jail. “It affects everybody,” she says, reiterating that treatment confers a benefit to positive and negative individuals alike. Those individuals living with HIV with suppressed viral loads can not only be more confident about their health but they can be confident about the health of their partners. She goes on, “I think, too, that we’re finding more and more proof that our system of incarceration is really based on racism, and that there are hundreds of thousands of people who have been jailed, who shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place. And so, at the very least they should be treated [fairly] when they get out.”
As we continue our conversation, we agree that HIV doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that one’s HIV status interconnects with many aspects of life and access to services—housing, education, healthcare, and so on. “VOCAL recognized the intersectionality of these issues right away,” Jennifer says. “We worked on parole issues, drug users issues, housing, access to healthcare, youth projects; we ran campaigns that were multi-issue.” She explains that these are all part of the basic needs one needs to survive. And VOCAL was committed to providing these basic needs, to ending the war on drugs, mass incarcerations and homelessness, to ending AIDS.
Jennifer Flynn Walker became an AIDS activist as a result of her multi-issue activism work. “I really became committed to being a social justice activist, primarily attempting to undo racism,” she explains. “When you work in AIDS, you really see every single day smart social policies not being implemented because of racism. And there’s really no other reason.
“I think AIDS activism has been most successful as part of a bigger movement. So I think VOCAL has been a great example of that. VOCAL has been able to pass moral laws that positively affect people living with HIV/AIDS, and yet it’s a multi-issue organization,” providing services to people who need them the most, while also trying to expand these services to everybody else.
Nowadays, Jennifer Flynn Walker commits her time to help start groups similar to VOCAL across the country. “People living with HIV/AIDS, people who’re drug users are desperate to get together and work on campaigns—they just need a little bit of proof of concept that this can happen, and an organizer to spend some time [with them]. And then they’re ready to go.”
She also believes that we can end AIDS as an epidemic, that is, we can get to zero new HIV infections. It has already been proven that those who’re on treatment and undetectable (virtually) cannot spread the virus.
“The [stock] market is not going to end AIDS,” she says. “Activists are going to end AIDS, government investments and getting people into treatment [are going to end AIDS]. We’re at an amazing point right now, and this isn’t hyperbolic, we actually know that we can end AIDS as an epidemic in the state of New York and around the world. We can actually do that!”
She explains that ending new HIV infections in the States could happen one state at a time, like a snowball effect. Once a few states get to zero new infections, other states would try to achieve the same goal. “It’s very real,” she emphasizes. “We’ve known since 2011 that this is possible. UNAIDS has done an economic modeling. It’s the cover story of the June 2011 Economist magazine.
“There will still be people living with HIV, obviously,” she adds, “and we still need a cure. But with [the resources available] right now, if we can get people onto treatment, we can end AIDS as an epidemic.”
Learn more about Health GAP by visiting www.healthgap.org.
Alina Oswald interviewed artist Hector Toscano for September’s Gallery.