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?

BY Tim Murphy

March 06 2014 7:00 AM ET


Above: Kitchen staff prepares the popular daily hot lunch

With Hill gone, who should move GMHC forward in these troubled times? Nobody I spoke to for this story recommended Weinberg. “She’s a lovely, nice woman without the skills, ability, and vision to move GMHC where it needs to go,” says a former staffer, echoing others. For her part, Weinberg says she wants to stay on at GMHC, as number 1 or otherwise, to get enhanced mental health and substance abuse counseling services fully licensed and up and running. “I’d love to see that through,” she says, insisting that such counseling can help GMHC play an important role in preventing HIV among at-risk New Yorkers.

Should the new CEO be HIV-positive and/or a gay black man— which, along with transgender women, is the demographic currently most affected by HIV in the U.S.? Should the CEO be a New Yorker or, like some of GMHC’s former CEOs, an out-of-towner? Should they have a strong background in fundraising, management, activism—or all of the above? They’re all difficult questions. “It has to be someone with a background in HIV but also grassroots advocacy,” says a recent former staffer. “Someone who can get ahead of the trends and be proactive, not reactive. The big issues going for- ward are aging with HIV, mental health. They have to turn outward again, reaching young people of color, especially men. And they have to reengage the gay white community and its money.”

In December, Stone said that GMHC was looking for a firm to launch the hunt for their new CEO.

In addition, some say, the agency needs a stronger board. “They haven’t had really rich, bossy people on it in recent years,” says someone close to the current board. “You need people willing to throw a fit when things aren’t going right.”

Finally, even if GMHC corrects it finances (the agency posted a six-figure loss in 2012) and its leadership, it will still have to decide what kind of agency it wants to be: one that focuses on direct services, such as meals and counseling, which continues to be a strong suit, or one that tries to regain its 1980s and early-mid-’90s status as a message and advocacy leader on HIV/AIDS in New York. In recent years, GMHC’s prevention messaging has been vague, at best. Stone proudly shows off the HIV-prevention palm cards that GMHC has distributed in gay venues in recent years, but the agency has not had a massive subway campaign of the kind that once made waves since 2010’s “I Love My Boo” series.

Those posters featured beautiful photos of young gay male couples of color, but did not spell out a blunt message using the word “HIV”—such as the fact that city HIV infection rates among young black men were on the rise while on the decline in the overall population; or even something concrete, such as alerting viewers about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), an infection prevention tool by which HIV-negative people start a month’s course of HIV meds immediately after possible HIV exposure.

“Aren’t these beautiful?” says Stone, showing off an array of cards featuring more cute young gay male couples of color, shot by gay celeb photographer Mike Ruiz. “Kiss + Tell,” read the cards. “In real life, people have history.” “Talk about where you’ve been and where you want to go.” Nowhere do the cards say anything clear and concrete about HIV or how to avoid it.

Stone says in-house focus groups dictated the cards’ content. Weinberg says the unrestricted private money needed to do bold public campaigns has dried up, from up to 80% of the agency’s funds once upon a time to less than 50% today.

The agency has also lost ground in the past decade in terms of how strongly it has the ear of government officials in New York City, Albany, and Washington, D.C. It’s been surpassed by agencies like Housing Works, Harlem United, and the research-oriented agencies Treatment Action Group and AIDS Community Research Initiative of America, as well as a newly resurgent ACT UP-NY. Those groups are at the forefront of an effort to get New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take his cue from Massachusetts and San Francisco, which have coordinated tools to dramatically reduce their HIV infection rates, and declare a plan to end the AIDS epidemic in New York State, which has long carried the nation’s highest HIV burden.

“GMHC has virtually had to beg to be considered important enough to be part of that discussion,” says an activist close to the initiative. “To even get on the email list. They’ve lost all their influence in the city and state, and even more so among their colleagues at other agencies.”

In other words, it’s a truly troubled time for an agency that once wrote the book on how to both care for people with AIDS and prevent others from getting it. Can it find new leadership that is truly open to listening to input from below as well as outside? That can balance the demands of financial stewardship in admittedly horrible fiscal times with the daily nitty-gritty of operating services, all while lending a genuinely honest ear and human touch to staff, clients, and the community? That can rebuild relationships with GMHC’s forgotten moneyed gay white male past while serving the young gay and transgender people of color most at risk in the city?

It’s a tall order. But it was an easy one to hope for that afternoon at lunch, watching GMHC do so well what it has done for 30 years— even more so now for clients who are aging and seem in need more than ever of the supportive second home that GMHC provides.

“I wish they’d look honestly at where they are now and how far they’ve fallen,” says Jim Eigo, a longtime AIDS activist who, like Kramer, was a GMHCer before he went on to be part of the more political ACT UP. “Having said that, I don’t understand the party line that says, ‘GMHC is inefficient, so let it sink.’ I’ve been there recently. I can think of at least six ACT UP survivors who get vital services there, including daily lunch. They have to consolidate their resources around those core services.”

Eigo pauses. “Let’s not forget,” he says. “They saved this city’s gay community. That’s a glorious history, and we should help them figure out how to continue it.”

 

Image credit: Courtesy of GMHC

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