David Ernesto Munar, Howard Brown Health CEO and HIV Advocate, Is Leading the Fight Against LGBTQ Health Inequity in Chicago
by Chip Alfred
For more than three decades, David Ernesto Munar has earned his reputation as a visionary leader and a dedicated champion for some of the Windy City’s most vulnerable populations. After working his way up to President and CEO of AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC), Munar then took on the top spot at Howard Brown Health, the largest LGBTQ healthcare system in the Midwest. He has also established himself as an influential voice for people living with HIV, helping to shape national HIV/AIDS policy during the Obama administration. Yet, despite all of Munar’s accomplishments, he is not driven by rewards or accolades. What motivates the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame inductee goes deeper than any personal or professional triumphs. He says it’s just a part of who he is. “Living with HIV, having the opportunity to work in a nonprofit and to build skills around public policy advocacy and making change happen really crystalized for me that being an HIV activist was the cause I wanted to dedicate my life to. It was an important moment in my life to understand that there was a purpose for me. It’s bigger than a career aspiration or any institution. It is a value that I carry with me.”
Munar, fifty-one, was born in Queens, New York, to Colombian immigrant parents. “At a very young age, I knew I was different. I was teased, harassed by bullies for being a sissy, or less of a jock than they were. I knew to hide anything that would confirm their taunts,” he tells A&U. “I remember feeling panic-stricken with my parents in the room hearing anything LGBT or stories about the dawning of the AIDS epidemic in the news on TV.” He has also had body issues throughout his life. “In high school, I was the fat kid on the cross-country team who became skinny and got to varsity.” He immediately loved running. “It was an escape for me. It helped me with stress, but also with the identity of not being comfortable in my own skin.” Munar is still an avid runner who has completed fourteen marathons to date and numerous half-marathons.
After high school, Munar moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University. He graduated in 1991 with a BA in Hispanic Studies and some practical social justice experience under his belt. Just a few months later, he was hired by AFC as the Administrative Assistant. In 1994, he agreed to participate in a research protocol at Howard Brown that was providing HIV testing for gay men every six months. “I had tested negative six months prior. I had begun dating someone exclusively; he was the only person I had any contact with,” Munar recalls. “He assured me he was negative and got tested regularly, so it was quite a shock when I tested positive. I didn’t believe it.” He asked for repeat testing a few times that year. “It was really a tough time. I was twenty-four in Chicago and alone. Every component of that was a lonely experience. There were no effective treatments then. Working at AFC, I knew about all the experimental treatments that had been celebrated as the pathway to controlling HIV and then failed people. There was a desperation; people were willing to try anything.” He says it took him several months to process it and move towards acceptance.
As he moved toward acceptance, he was also moving up the ranks at AFC and garnering national attention. In 2007, he helped launch the Coalition for a National AIDS Strategy, which led to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy unveiled by President Obama in July 2010. The following year, the White House named him a Champion of Change and invited him to speak as the nation commemorated the 30th Anniversary of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic. After that, Munar was invited to testify before the Democratic National Convention Platform Committee in advance of the 2012 national convention in Charlotte. There he delivered an impassioned plea to the committee to “commit to concrete steps to achieve an AIDS-free generation” and asked them to consider his detailed plan on how to make that happen.
Jim Pickett [A&U, April 2021], Senior Director of Prevention, Advocacy, and Gay Men’s Health at AFC, was hired in 2004 by Munar, whom he could see was “a national level leader.” Pickett describes his former boss as that rare breed of CEO who is a “policy wonk,” a deft strategist, and a genuine people person all rolled into one. “David has a passion for the policy work and understands how to translate it effectively for all kinds of different audiences. He also understands that success is about the people around him. He sees value in people and is able to pinpoint it and help bring out their potential.”
We saw an enormous demand for healthcare. Our community was desperate for quality healthcare services that it could rely on. From 2015 to 2019, we grew to twelve clinics spanning twenty miles, and we were strategic in opening clinics in communities of color.
In 2014, after twenty-three years at AFC, the opportunity to lead Howard Brown presented itself. Howard Brown had been struggling financially and there was a sense among some in the LGBTQ community that the organization was out of touch with the people it serves. In an interview with Windy City Times before he accepted the position, Munar stated, “I’m thrilled that we’ve crossed the barrier to marriage equality, but there’s no equality without health. If you’re sick and you’re out of the system, you’re not equal. We can’t for a moment believe that the lives of LGBTQ people have been forever improved. Not without racial justice, ethnic justice, economic justice, and assistance for the poor.” Munar knew he would be taking on a challenging role, but it was one that would allow him to effect change on a larger scale for LGBTQ people in Chicago.
“When I joined Howard Brown it was two clinics, a youth program in the basement of a church, and about 7,500 patients,” he says. Under Munar’s leadership, after shoring up the organization’s financial situation and securing Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) status in 2015, federal resources were coming in that allowed Howard Brown to thrive and grow. “The community responded. We saw an enormous demand for healthcare. Our community was desperate for quality healthcare services that it could rely on. From 2015 to 2019, we grew to twelve clinics spanning twenty miles, and we were strategic in opening clinics in communities of color.” Howard Brown now sees between 35,000 and 40,000 patients. With more than 700 full-time staff members and an annual operating budget exceeding $150 million, it is one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ organizations.
“Howard Brown Health exists because there is a dearth of culturally competent care or even respect for our community at many other health systems,” Munar explains. “In fact, the more we look, the more we find how poorly prepared many health systems are to provide high-quality healthcare to segments of the LGBTQ community, including people affected by HIV. We’re focused on modeling the kind of care that we want for LGBTQ people and trying to influence our peers to change their practices through our education, advocacy and research programs.”
For the patients at Howard Brown, Munar says, “We want to see our patients achieve the best health possible for themselves and to reduce the distractions of illness and poor health on their ability to thrive. Health inequality is not biological, it’s all social. It’s the effects of trauma, stigma, and discrimination. To the extent that we can mitigate those inequities, we can allow LGBTQ people the space and the energy to pursue their dreams, their careers, and to care for their families.” Munar is encouraged to see that Howard Brown is making a difference. “It’s so gratifying when I hear people say, ‘Wow, this is the first experience where I felt affirmed. I felt like I could confide in my health care provider, like I had a partner to help me figure this out.’ Whether it’s transitioning or dealing with a health issue or domestic violence, whatever the need is. To the extent that we can amplify that for more than just our patients, that’s superlative.”
When I asked Munar about what’s next for him, it seems pretty clear this guy with only two workplaces listed on his LinkedIn profile won’t be adding a third anytime soon. There are three major construction projects for Howard Brown on the horizon, and he intends to shepherd all three to completion. The projects include a new home for the North Halsted clinic, a new LGBT community center/Howard Brown clinic with community partners on the South Side of Chicago, and a permanent home for the Broadway Youth Center (BYC) for young people who are experiencing housing instability and homelessness. “BYC is really important to us because so many LGBTQ young people experience discrimination, stigma and harm in their schools, in their communities, in their religious organizations, and even in their homes.” Munar adds, “These three projects will help the organization fulfill its mission for the next fifty years and that’s going to be its legacy of service to the community.”
As for his own legacy of service, David Ernesto Munar takes a moment to reflect on his past before pondering his impact on the future. “I had to navigate a world as an adolescent where I did not have adults or peers to support me. I was a young person living with HIV and scared to death. It’s my hope that I can make things like coming out and moving through the world as an LGBTQ person or as a person who is affected by HIV or as a person who is living with HIV better than it was for me.”
Chip Alfred is A&U’s Editor at Large, a public speaker, and a media and public relations consultant based in Philadelphia. Follow Chip on Facebook @ https://www.facebook.com/chip.alfred.5.