Brad Grimes Helps to Combat HIV and Stigma in West Virginia, the Reddest of the States
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Ella Jennings
Unless you would like exploring the West Virginia Penitentiary (“19th-century Gothic prison offering guided tours, overnight paranormal visits, events and a gift shop”) or the Archive of the Afterlife, A Paranormal Museum (I’m not kidding), growing up in Moundsville, West Virginia, must be pretty stifling. For a gay mixed-race teenager growing up in Moundsville in the 1970s and ’80s, it was probably hellish if not downright dangerous. Having finally fled Moundsville, Brad Grimes—lawyer, educator, advocate—can attest to what it was like growing up there.
At age thirteen or so, Brad began to suspect that he just might be gay—”My major crush on one of my male friends was an indicator,” he joked.
“I desperately did not want to be gay,” he continued. “Being bi-racial in a rural community in 1970s and 1980s West Virginia was more than enough of a challenge. I was raised by my mother and her family (who are white) and have never met my biological father (who is black). My mother was unwed, and my birth was a local scandal. I’ll always be grateful that she chose to keep me, despite everyone around her telling her to do otherwise.”
The story is familiar: young LGBTQ+ individuals living in small towns and rural areas, never feeling “at home” in their hometowns, and longing to flee small-town life and small-town minds. Brad was no exception. But Brad’s urge to leave was complicated by the horrifying news of “a rare gay cancer” showing up in men in Los Angeles and New York City. To Brad’s fifteen-year-old mind, the news “felt like an omen, warning me of my fate: I was sure if I ‘let’ myself be gay, then I would certainly die of AIDS. That’s how strong the association in my mind was: Gay = AIDS.”
When it came time to select a college, his primary criterion was putting distance between himself and Moundsville. After considering Yale, Tufts, and Georgetown as “my best options for getting the hell out of Moundsville,” Brad decided on Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a B.S. in International Affairs/Foreign Service in 1989. After college, fleeing even farther from West Virginia, Brad moved to Beijing, China where he taught English as a Second Language. It was in China that Brad began the process of coming out, “with the safety net of [putting] 12,000 miles between me and those who might reject me.” He returned to the States after a year, to Moundsville, and in 1992 came out to his family and friends. He has remained in West Virginia since then, citing “my personal struggles with depression and anxiety; family members’ health problems; [and] feeling that I no longer needed to run from my identity as a gay man.” Moving from Moundsville to Morgantown, Brad earned his J.D. at the West Virginia University College of Law in 2007, was admitted to the WV State Bar in 2008, and then practiced corporate law at a large firm in Wheeling, West Virginia.
A chance date introduced Brad to Caritas House. Established in 1994, Caritas House is a supportive service agency for people living with HIV/AIDS in North-Central West Virginia. Caritas (Latin for “charity”) became a provider of Housing Opportunity for People with AIDS (HOPWA) assistance, distributing more than $3 million in housing and utility support over a ten-year period. In 1996, Caritas House also acquired an emergency shelter for people living with HIV/AIDS who are homeless or in transition. In 2007, Caritas House launched a permanent supportive housing project. The organization’s education program reaches out to the community to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS. Brad learned about Caritas House on a Grindr date with the Vice President of the Board at Caritas, who told Brad all about the program and suggested that he might be a good fit on the Board. He initially declined the invitation. But, he said, he realized that the position would be a good way to help and support folks living with HIV/AIDS. “I was invited to a board meeting, and I was really impressed with the level of commitment and dedication I witnessed from both the board members and the Caritas staff, and I knew that I wanted to be part of that team.” After a few months of attending Board meetings, Brad was nominated to serve as Vice President of the Board; currently he serves as the Board President.
Early last year, Brad was job hunting, focusing on working at WVU, perhaps in a legal capacity or university administration, when he saw the job posting for an administrative assistant in WVU’s new LGBTQ+ Center. “I instantly thought, ‘Now, that is work I could really care about, and that would feel personally meaningful.’” Having worked as an attorney at a large corporate defense firm, where the clients were large powerful faceless corporate entities, getting to work with young vulnerable people was an important distinction to Brad. “I felt that the LGBTQ+ Center would afford me a chance to work with and support young LGBTQ+ students—something I wish had been available back in my day. It was an environment in which I could be comfortable and, hopefully, make a positive contribution.”
That contribution is sorely needed in West Virginia. One of the most conservative states in the country, West Virginia’s response to HIV has been wholly inadequate. As of 2017, there were approximately 1,800 people living with HIV in West Virginia (population only 1.8 million). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on forty new HIV cases diagnosed in 2017 in fifteen mostly rural counties in the southern part of the state, most notably in and around the capital city Charleston (population 50,000). Health officials from the CDC and in West Virginia say the stigma associated with HIV adds to infection risk, hindering monitoring, testing, and treatment, and adding to the risk of widespread outbreaks. Tania Basta, chair of the Department of Social and Public Health at Ohio University, has said, “I’m not saying that stigma is any higher in rural areas. It’s just that, because of the nature of living in small towns, where everybody kind of knows everybody, word travels quickly.”
Further, the ultra-conservative political atmosphere in West Virginia makes treatment and prevention especially difficult. According to a New York Times article from April 27, 2018, Charleston, under political pressure, closed its syringe exchange program—a “mini-mall for junkies and drug dealers” in the words of Danny Jones, the city’s mayor (himself a recovering alcoholic)—in early 2018, despite the program’s success. Daniel Raymond, the deputy director of planning and policy for the Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he had considered the Charleston program to be “a huge success story [and] a potential model for other communities.” Unfortunately, the relationship between the health department and the city has become so toxic that the mayor and city officials have spoken openly of dismantling the department altogether. “It’s our health department,” said Paul Ellis, the city attorney. “We created it. We can make it disappear.” This despite the fact that Charleston is at “grave risk for an HIV outbreak just like the one in Scott County,” Dr. Michael Brumage, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said. “We’re sitting on a powder keg.”
It is in this abundance of stigma that the WVU LGBTQ Center bravely operates. While planning a World AIDS Day fundraiser for Caritas House at a local restaurant, Brad told A&U, “We met with some very unexpected and unfortunate news. While the restaurant’s Events Coordinator and Manager were excited about our fundraiser being held there, plans fell through at the last minute when the owners shut us down, telling the Event Coordinator to find a children’s hospital or some other group, because ‘those people’ [i.e., people involved with serving the HIV/AIDS community] aren’t the right fit for our brand.’”
In the face of this kind of prejudice, since joining the Center in August 2018, Brad has worked closely with the Center’s Director, Dr. Cris Mayo, and the Assistant Director, Dr. Ellen Rodrigues, on the Center’s programming and events, creating a safe, comfortable environment for LGBTQ+ students and allies, and providing Safe Zone and Transgender Safe Zone Training to faculty, staff and students alike, among other special educational and recreational programs for students.
For one of their most successful ventures, Brad and the Center partnered with Caritas House and the WVU Positive Health Clinic for World AIDS Day 2018 events. In addition to their drive to collect personal hygiene and home cleaning supplies for the Caritas House pantry (to be distributed to Morgantown’s homeless and others in need), the three organizations presented a talk at the Center for students, faculty, and staff entitled “HIV/AIDS in 2018: Where We Are Today.” The talk highlighted advances in HIV/AIDS prevention (e.g. PrEP) and treatment, and how living with HIV/AIDS is now a manageable chronic condition instead of the death sentence it once was. The Center also partnered with Milan Puskar Health Right to provide free and confidential testing the day of the presentation.
In addition to programs about HIV/AIDS, Brad is working with Dr. Mayo on the creation of a Gay Men’s Health Group, to launch in the Spring 2019 term. Among other services and educational efforts, the GMHG will create a brochure exploring gay/bi/MSM health-related issues, STD testing locations in Morgantown, and other resources to help improve the physical health of gay men. “I’m excited to be playing a large role in this programming,” Brad said.
“I am impressed every day by the resilience, self-acceptance, and community-building I witness among the young LGBTQ+ students at our Center. I’m so glad to see things improving for the younger generations of LGBTQ people. And honestly, I can’t help but feel a little envious—what a difference a Center like this would have made in the lives and self-esteem of LGBTQ+ folk back when I was young! But most of all, I’m really happy to be part of that progress and helping to make (and keep) things better for our LGBTQ+ youth.”
Dr. Cris Mayo (whom I have met and greatly admire; see A&U, July 2017) lauded Brad’s contribution to the Center. “The LGBTQ+ Center has been amazingly fortunate to have the ever-energetic Brad working with us. His advocacy for LGBTQ-related health in general and health among gay men in particular has helped us raise awareness of the continuing challenges of HIV in our communities, the difficulties people have in accessing PrEP, and even more basic challenges in having conversations in our communities about health.” She continued, “Brad and I are establishing a gay men’s health discussion group in the spring that will be an important resource in our community.
“It’s also great for members of the university community to see that working closely with local organizations can improve our communities—having Brad, the president of the board of Caritas House, has really enhanced that connection.”
As a native West Virginian myself—who fled the state for many of the same reasons that Brad fled—it makes me very happy to know that there are talented hard-working LGBTQ advocates like Brad and Dr. Mayo working for the health and well-being of the community in that blood-reddest of states. I hope to visit the Center again some time to see all the progress they’ve made since I was there in April 2017.
To learn more and keep up with the goings-on at the WVU LGBTQ+ Center, join their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/WVULGBTQCenter. For more information on Caritas House, check out www.caritashouse.com. To learn more about the WVU Positive Health Clinic, visit https://medicine.hsc.wvu.edu/wvu-positive-health-clinic/. For more information about Milan Puskar Health Right, please go to https://mphealthright.org.
Photographer Ella Jennings is a graduate student pursuing a Master of Science in Journalism at West Virginia University. She can be contacted by email at [email protected] or by following her on Twitter @DubVella.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.