Equal Access
Under the Leadership of Noël Gordon, the Human Rights Campaign Expands Its Efforts to Address Health Disparities Facing People Impacted by HIV
by Chip Alfred

Noël Gordon was destined to work in the HIV/AIDS field. “HIV has defined my life from the very first moment I knew I was gay,” declares the Senior Program Specialist for HIV Prevention and Health Equity at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). “When I came out to my mother at around age sixteen, she said, ‘I don’t want you to get HIV and die.’ That one sentence has shaped every single sexual encounter I have ever had with a man and every single sexual encounter I will have with a man.”

Gordon’s connection to HIV/AIDS work started with a college class that took him to Jamaica, a country hit hard by HIV/AIDS. “That class is what opened my eyes to the current realities of HIV and showed me that the face of the epidemic reflected the person I saw in the mirror—young, black gay men—and no one seemed to care.” Referencing the CDC’s recent projection that one in two black gay or bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime, Gordon remarks, “It makes me sad that half of my peers will seroconvert if we do nothing.” Now Gordon, twenty-five, is empowered and energized to do something about it. In 2015, after serving nearly three years in various administrative and project management roles, Gordon was promoted to his newly-created position with HRC, the largest national LGBTQ civil rights organization.

Photo by John Jackson Photography
Photo by John Jackson Photography

Founded in 1980 as a political action committee, HRC has maintained a strong presence on Capitol Hill, lobbying for funding, non-discrimination and LGBTQ-inclusive legislation for people living with HIV. This has included reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest federally-funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS; the repeal of the HIV Travel Ban, which prohibited HIV-positive tourists and immigrants from entering the U.S.; the HOPE Act (HIV Organ Policy Equity), which legalized organ transplants between HIV-positive donors and recipients; and the Affordable Care Act, which increases access to health insurance coverage, treatment and medical services.

Gordon explains that HRC’s HIV/AIDS initiatives, which follow President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy, take a three-pronged call-to-action approach.

Education: Providing comprehensive educational resources about HIV prevention, treatment and care.

Mobilization: Encouraging HRC members and supporters to take action to fight the dual epidemics of HIV and HIV-related stigma.

Advocacy: Protecting the rights, dignity and well-being of people living with or affected by HIV.

Human Rights Campaign staff walk the (AIDS) Walk. Photo courtesy HRC
Human Rights Campaign staff walk the (AIDS) Walk. Photo courtesy HRC

On the education front, HRC, in partnership with AIDS United, created What Do I Do? A Handbook to Understanding Health & HIV. This interactive online resource provides a user-friendly primer for the facts everyone needs to know about HIV, along with links to other resources for more detailed information. The handbook was launched to address a specific need for HRC’s constituents. “There were a lot of HIV/AIDS resources out there, but none with adequate LGBTQ-inclusive language that put LGBTQ people at the center,” Gordon tells A&U. HRC’s website also includes a designated PrEP and PEP Resource Center, with links that guide users where they can find PrEP providers in their area.

In 2016, with funding provided by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, HRC launched a new initiative to mobilize young people on the front lines of the battle against HIV/AIDS. “Twenty percent of new HIV infections in this country are among young people, and the response to the HIV epidemic has to include them,” Gordon asserts. The HIV 360° Fellowship Program is a capacity-building fellowship program for nonprofit leaders under age thirty-five who are working for HIV-inclusive organizations or initiatives. Through this program, HRC invests in advocates and projects in communities hit hardest by the epidemic. “There is a generation of young people who are rising through the ranks right now who are prepared to make a big impact on the world. The goal of HIV 360° is not just to provide these young people with the skills needed to gain a seat at the table, but to also be running the meeting.”

HRC has also stepped up its HIV/AIDS public education and outreach efforts with a focus on those at highest risk. “We need to continue to sound the alarm on the impact of HIV on black gay and bisexual men,” says Gordon. “And we need to accelerate the uptake of PrEP among this group.” He points out that not enough PrEP prescriptions are being written for those most impacted by HIV. Based on the most recent data available from Gilead, the drugmaker of Truvada for PrEP, seventy-four percent of those surveyed who were taking PrEP were white, while only ten percent were African American.

Left to right: Noël Gordon, Andrés Cano (HRC HIV 360° Fellow), and Marvell Terry II (HRC HIV Project Manager), at the White House Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy N. Gordon
Left to right: Noël Gordon, Andrés Cano (HRC HIV 360° Fellow), and Marvell Terry II (HRC HIV Project Manager), at the White House Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy N. Gordon

Of course, the health disparities facing young men of color who have sex with men (MSM) are not just about racism. “We can’t confront the HIV/AIDS epidemic without confronting other social determinants of health—the structural barriers,” Gordon contends. He cites discrimination based on homophobia and transphobia, poverty, and lack of access to quality health care, affordable insurance, and social services. “We need to tackle the barriers that are driving HIV transmission among black gay and bisexual men. We need to take a serious look at interventions that challenge homelessness, that challenge racism and mitigate the effects of poverty, police brutality and violence. All of those factors are what this community—my community—has to work through just to get tested for HIV in the first place.”

Noel Gordon 2Gordon, who acknowledges the opportunities his education and experience have afforded him, never forgets his roots. “I grew up poor in a single-parent household. My mom immigrated to Brooklyn from Panama. My family used food stamps for most of my childhood, and I was the first one in my immediate family to go to college.” The University of Michigan graduate who completed a law and policy fellowship at UC Berkeley is keenly aware that many of his peers have not been as fortunate as him. “When I think about where I have been and where I am today, the only word that comes to mind is grateful,” he says.

Despite the uncertainty of what the future may hold for LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS advocacy under a new administration, Gordon remains hopeful. “It’s amazing for me to see the movement for LGBTQ equality and the movement to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic realign themselves in ways many folks thought they could not. I’m optimistic about the synergy between these communities and to be working at the intersection of their movements,” he says. “Until we end the epidemic, I’m going to work my ass off to make a difference.”

At the end of my interview with Noël Gordon for this article, I asked him to humor me with one last personal question. “If I had a magic wand and could grant you one wish right now, what would you wish for?”

“I would wish for my family to have all of their needs and wants fulfilled,” he responded. “My family has given the world to me, so I’d like to give the world back to them.”

I bet you’ve already given them a world of pride, Noël.

For more information, visit www.hrc.org.

Chip Alfred, A&U’s Editor at Large, is the Director of Development & Communications at Philadelphia FIGHT.