Whatever Happened to GMHC?

“First in the fight against AIDS,” as it long billed itself, the New York agency once known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis is sinking under a huge rent on unused space, a vacuum of leadership, the dimming of its voice in HIV prevention, and criticism from all sides. Can it possibly right itself?



The temperature is mild on a recent afternoon, but the wind still whips off the water of the Hudson River as one walks west on 33rd Street from Manhattan’s Penn Station through a massive construction site that is the city’s much-anticipated Hudson Yards mega-development. Finally, inside a towering concrete bunker that houses the Associated Press, one finds GMHC, the country’s first AIDS agency and a pioneer in HIV services and prevention. The organization has made this its home since 2011 after moving here from Chelsea, its longtime base.

The ground-floor entrance, separate from the building’s main entrance, feels cold and cinderblocky, but upon arriving on the sixth floor, one finds a convivial, multiracial crowd of about 100 HIV- positive clients, many over the age of 50, some with obvious disabilities from decades of living with AIDS. They’re gathered in a bright, cheery dining room eating a delicious lunch of homemade split pea soup, chicken with mushroom gravy, veggie quiche, mashed potatoes, salad, and oranges. At the moment all but one of the diners are men, even though GMHC, which stopped using its full name—Gay Men’s Health Crisis—a few years ago so as not to suggest it served only gay men, claims that 25.4% of its clients are women. There’s plenty of chatting, flirting, and affectionate hugging; many clients give a thumbs-up to the adored longtime chef, Wilson Rodriguez.

“We’ll have 500 people here for Thanksgiving dinner,” says Krishna Stone, GMHC’s longtime communications staffer. “We had a guy one Thanksgiving who cried because his own family wouldn’t accept him that day, but he had a home here.”

HIV-positive New Yorkers, many of them gay and bi men, have had a home at GMHC since 1982, when playwright and activist Larry Kramer and a handful of other professional white gay men founded the agency amid shocking public indifference to a disease that was suddenly striking down homosexuals left and right. But these days, there’s more home than there are inhabitants; a post-lunch tour of GMHC’s two sprawling floors revealed large expanses of space that are eerily, depressingly, expensively deserted. When the organization moved in, GMHC intended both to scale up services and sublet extra space to smaller nonprofits to help with the rent, says Stone. But as of today, three years after the move, that hasn’t happened.

The relocation itself was fractious. Almost three years ago, in a move that Kramer himself noisily protested, GMHC exited the run-down, multilevel townhouse-style building that had been its headquarters since 1997, fleeing the prospect of a huge rent hike on a burdensome lease by a notoriously nasty landlord. It moved here, to this far-flung street, a minor slog from Penn Station in an end-of- the-earth part of town with no neighborhood identity, let alone a gay one. Plans to grow into the giant space or to sublet unused parts to like-minded nonprofits have not materialized. The agency is spending $4.6 million a year, about one-fifth its total revenue in 2012, on rent for a mostly vacant space.

Left: Former CEO Dr. Marjorie Hill

“They have a huge problem with their real estate right now,” said a longtime GMHC staffer who left in recent years. Most of the people who spoke for this story are or were until recently GMHC staffers, board members, and clients, and most spoke anonymously in order to be frank without incurring grudges. (Full disclosure: this writer is a former Housing Works staffer and a former GMHC volunteer and consultant.)

GMHC’s real estate problem has become the symbolic centerpiece of a once mighty agenda-setting agency that has found itself badly adrift in recent years even as it ably continues to deliver certain core services, such as a daily hot lunch and mental health and legal counseling, and as its celebrity-studded annual AIDS Walk still brings in millions of dollars—a large chunk of which goes to the private company that organizes the event.

“I love them and the work they do, but there’s a lot that’s problematic there, especially with the leadership,” says one former staffer. “If they truly want a new direction, they need new leadership.”

Some of this decline has been happening slowly for years. Since the advent of effective HIV therapies 17 years ago transformed AIDS from a boiling crisis to a muted but persistent one, it’s well-known that GMHC has not been able to attract the kind of funding from New York’s rich, liberal private sector that it did back in the days when, with its info hotline, one-on-one Buddy Program, and bold, same-sex-kissing subway ads, it pioneered a national model for com- passionate AIDS services and candid HIV prevention.

“All that money’s moved on to marriage equality,” says a former board member. “The wealthy gay white men this organization served early on in the crisis have left it behind as the epidemic in New York has hit more women and gay men of color.”

Image credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images