Radically Relevant

Fighting HIV in the District for decades, UHU's Ron Simmons traces his path from Muslim and Mao, to here and now

This year, 2008, marks two bittersweet 20-year anniversaries: World AIDS Day, first observed Dec. 1, 1988, and Us Helping Us, People Into Living Inc., incorporated the same year.

A local nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and treating HIV/AIDS among black gay men, UHU just marked its anniversary with a gala on Nov. 21, while the world prepares for World AIDS Day ceremonies with sadness and hope. Treatments have improved, but infection rates remain alarming. And, yes, people still die of AIDS-related illnesses.

If anyone embodies the emotions that infuse discussions of HIV and AIDS, it’s Ron Simmons, who has headed UHU since 1992 — almost as long as he’s lived the reality of being HIV-infected himself. Mostly, he laughs. Not for levity’s sake, but because his humanity is seemingly unconquerable. He’s certainly not afraid to follow laughter with tears.

Ron Simmons

But with Simmons, it’s always the hope that wins out.

METRO WEEKLY: The last time I spoke with you, you were still pretty excited about the election.

RON SIMMONS: I don’t know if it’s just something in me, or in everyone, but there’s been a change in my personality. Every time I see [Barak Obama] on TV, I’m like, ”Wow, he’s cool.” I haven’t cheered for a president in years, really.

I wasn’t, at first, going to vote for him. I really couldn’t decide between [Green Party candidate Cynthia] McKinney and [independent candidate Ralph] Nader. But just as I walked into the polling booth, I was thinking of 10 or 20 years from now, when your great-grandnephew asks, ”You were alive to vote for Obama?” Are you going to say to this kid, ”No”? I am so happy that man won. Happy Obama Day. Every day from now on is going to be Obama Day. [Laughs.]

MW: You’ve told me that you think his presidency will be good for community nonprofits, including Us Helping Us, even in a souring economy. What do you see happening?

SIMMONS: I’m not an economist, but I’m thinking it’s going to be like Roosevelt did with the New Deal: generate jobs by making them. Then, of course, why not hold onto your nonprofits, the community-based sector that’s already doing the work for you? An economist would probably tell me I’m crazy. A capitalist economist would definitely tell me I’m crazy. I think a socialist would say it makes a lot of sense. So that’s my thinking, that that’s what he will do.

I’m hoping [Obama] will say ”Go to hell” to people who say we are too far in debt. That whole argument, the whole conservative-capitalist way of things, is to put the country so far in debt when they leave that the person coming in can’t do but so much social spending.

Bottom line, if you’re making more than $10 billion, [you should be] taxed at 99 percent. Plain and simple. Even if you’re making $1 billion. Come on. Who are we kidding? You’ve got people hungry in the street, and people with billions and billions of dollars? Doing what? Flying around from house to house? They’re not really working, other than controlling wealth. And God forbid they got it through inheritance, where, basically, they’re just slacking around. That’s madness. For someone who deals with people in the streets, that is utter madness, insanity. Having Barack Obama win shows me hope against this madness.

If you raise the standard of living, the people will begin to expect more. But if you don’t even talk about it, they’re happy for the little bit you give them. They’re thrilled about Social Security. They’re thrilled about food stamps. Why should public health be a question of profit? That should not even be in the equation. Neither should people be paying to go to college. When I found that — I think it was France — that you don’t pay to go to school, even up through grad school, I said, that is being civilized.

We’re going to have to begin to think about the whole globe and not just us. Plain and simple. China — I was so obsessed with the Chinese Olympics. I can remember back in college, reading the writings of Chairman Mao, the history of China, what Europe had done to it, the whole bit. I can remember when they finally got them to take Taiwan out of the UN and say that China is the country that represents the Chinese. To see how far they had come in my lifetime was ”Wow!”

MW: Tell me more about your background. Are you from D.C.?

SIMMONS: No. Brooklyn, N.Y. I came here in 1980, when I was 30, to get my doctorate at Howard University.

MW: What was your childhood like in Brooklyn?

SIMMONS: It was hell. I had a horrible childhood. I was suicidal at 13. If I seem to laugh a lot now, it’s because I think about then.

I was introduced to homosexuality at an early age — I was 5 or 6. My cousin, maybe a year or two older, his family had gotten evicted so he was staying with us. He and I were sleeping in the same bed. One night, he says to me, ”Do you want to do what the grownups do?” I had no idea what the he was talking about.

MW: Did he mean pay taxes?

SIMMONS: Right! [Laughs.] He showed me. He took me in his arms and he kissed me. It was just wonderful.

I believe, frankly, that being gay — as opposed to being homosexual, really feeling ”I am gay” — is much more of an innate, kind of spiritual thing. In my case, it was going to be there already, but that triggered it at such an early age. I never thought I was doing anything wrong. It felt good. What was I doing? Holding a guy, embracing, and basically playing house.

In the second grade, I played serious house with a guy named Larry. We put my sister’s doll under my shirt and pretended I was pregnant. We had no idea what we were doing. We were just acting out, a fantasy. I felt perfectly comfortable. He was really cute.

What happened was puberty. In fifth grade, he started chasing the girls. And so did the other guys. I realized that I didn’t want to. I couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t go back and have fun with each other the way we did before.

Then the name calling started: ”faggot.”

Because I was studious, I guess an attractive kid, the girls would chase me — and that would terrify me. I didn’t know quite how to react to what was happening around me. Pulling away from the girls, you become stigmatized. I was the sissy.

I studied a lot, and that paid off in that I did quite well in school. When I reached junior high school, they changed the ruling and said that basically a kid could go to any junior high school. My mother immediately signed me up to go way out — Sheepshead Bay. There was a good chance that the white kids would not really be happy to see me coming. They were waiting for you. If you got off at the stop in the Italian neighborhood, there was a lot of flak. If you got off at the stop in the Jewish neighborhood — the school was right in the middle — you had a better chance. In high school, I do remember one time some white guys calling out ”nigger.”

MW: So, out of the homophobic frying pan and into the racist fire?

SIMMONS: Right. Needless to say, the sexual thing went into this deep, deep closet that didn’t come out again until I went away to college. I went away to college by God’s grace, because Lord knows I wasn’t supposed to. So many times in my life, things have just happened that it’s like something divine going on.

Ron Simmons
Ron Simmons

MW: Were you raised in a particular faith tradition?

SIMMONS: I was raised a Sunni Muslim. My father became a Sunni Muslim before I was born. I grew up going to a mosque for the holy days, Ramadan, on State Street in Brooklyn Heights, where ”The Cosbys” lived.

Alcohol was not allowed in the house. I remember at my sister’s 16th birthday, the guys had to sneak outside to drink. We had to be in by sundown.

The strange thing with that is I never heard a homophobic sermon in the mosque. The sheikh told me to stop running around with girls. Other than that, I never really thought of my religion or God being against me because I’m gay. I’ve come across so many Christians raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition who just bang their heads against the Bible saying, ”Oh, I’m unworthy,” ”Oh, the book says this.” I’m like, ”Honey, read another book! Get a grip, okay?” [Laughs.] There are lots of books you can read. You can read the Quran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah. Read another book!

MW: What’s your faith like today?

SIMMONS: When I was about 13 or 14, it got to the point where I was really contemplating suicide. I was the black sissy and we lived in public housing. There were hundreds of families, so when you walked out of our building you were dealing with all the kids. I remember deciding I was going to kill myself.

I didn’t want my parents to freak out, so I told them I was going to do it. The mind of a child, right? Of course, they immediately freaked out and took me to a doctor. They sort of knew why.

I was all excited waiting for this appointment. I go to the doctor and tell him what the problem is, that I like guys. He says to me: ”Don’t do that. You’ll get in trouble. Next.” [Laughs.]

So I went back home to figure out how to kill myself. I was literally thinking, ”Well, we don’t have pills in the house. We don’t have weapons in the house. I’m not jumping off a 14 story building, because that’s painful.” Then I hear this voice in my head that I didn’t recognize as my own for the first time: ”Don’t do it. Things will get better.”

I went away to college and everything changed. Since then, that voice has spoken to me on different occasions, has told me things.

When I graduated college, I met some brothers who were heterosexuals, but very much into meditation, into African religion, other ways of thinking. They were some of my mentors.

Today? I went through this whole ”God is dead” period, [but] I’m extremely spiritual. I know that God is alive. I talk to him almost daily. Sometimes, particularly when I’m misbehaving, he will talk to me. I sort of live that way.

MW: What was D.C. like when you arrived in 1980?

SIMMONS: There was going to be the ”first national Third World gay conference” in Washington, to coincide with the first gay march in Washington, [October] 1979. I thought, ”Oh my God, a conference about being gay and Third World! I have got to be there.” And there was a number, ”Call ABilly Jones.” I called him the same day. I said, ”Man, I read about this thing. This is incredible. I’ve got to be there.” He told me about the [D.C.-Baltimore] Coalition [of Black Gays] and about D.C. He said, ”Oh, you should speak with Sidney Brinkley. He’s putting out a magazine called Blacklight.” We had maybe a three-hour conversation that first time.

I was selling Xerox machines, just driving around Saratoga Springs, [N.Y.] The training program for Xerox was in Leesburg, Va. They sent you there for two weeks to be polished. During the weekend, you could rent a car and drive to D.C. I told Sidney that that weekend I would stay at his place. Gary Martin, who is now dead, was having a discussion group for black, gay men at Sidney’s apartment. It was incredible. I was like, ”Oh my God! I’ve got to live here!” I knew then I was going to work at Xerox for one year, save up my money and move to D.C.

MW: D.C.’s black, gay culture was as strong an influence on your moving here as was finishing your doctorate at Howard University?

SIMMONS: Frankly, I was coming more for the culture than for school. The only reason I decided to go to school and not get a job was that I didn’t want to work. I was a professional student. I’d been through grad school for two years. I knew what it was like to live off a student stipend. And you couldn’t beat the deal: You work maybe six hours a day. You got off three months in the summer. You got a month during Christmas. It was the best deal in town. [Laughs.]

MW: You were here when AIDS first hit. What stands out for you from that time?

SIMMONS: I had finished two years of classes, I was working part-time and working on my dissertation. AIDS becomes a big thing. HIV was incurable. People were dying. You were being told you had six months. No one knew where the hell this disease came from. It was affecting gay men.

I came out early, in the Stonewall era. I knew the shit I had done in college, in grad school. I had gone to the bathhouses. I had done the trucks in the village before they built them into condos. I’d been in all of that shit. I remember the Mineshaft when people were fucking on pool tables. I’d been there. And I thought, ”You probably have this disease.” And the image I saw was this person in a hospital bed with these tubes hooked up, a skeleton slowly dying. I thought, ”This is going to be me. I’m going to be slowly dying. Why the fuck am I getting a Ph.D.? I’ve may only have six months to live. I better get a job, get a car. Enjoy life.”

Okay, 1986. I’m going to pay my rent at midnight on my bicycle and I get hit by a car. I wake up in D.C. General [Hospital]. It was like a dream. I was in this white room, in this white bed. The doctor said, ”You’re so lucky to be alive. The last case like yours was in a coma for six months. The car hit you, you came down and broke his windshield.” I had a broken collarbone. I had bruises all over. I was just looking around. ”What the fuck happened!? I was just on my bike a moment ago.”

I thought there was something to this, so I started to meditate. And ”the voice,” it spoke to me so loud you would’ve thought there was someone in the room. It said, ”I’ve got work for you to do, and you need a Ph.D. to do it. And don’t think about a slow, lingering death, because if I want you, I’ll take you like that.” [Snaps his fingers.]

Baby, I finished that Ph.D. within nine months! I told God, ”If you help me get my dissertation done, I’ll do AIDS work when I’m finished.” So when I finished, I became a ”buddy” at Whitman-Walker Clinic. That was 1987 or ’88. I was assigned to a buddy who had AIDS. He was staying in one of the clinic’s houses. But I couldn’t take it. I was into holistic health. I was into this whole vegetarian way of living. And he was not. He was into eating cupcakes and fried chicken and whatever. There was really nothing for me to talk to him about. I was 38, and he was maybe all of 20 or 21. It really bothered me the way he was getting all these services now that he was dying, that as a young, gay, black man, they would never give him. Staying in this lovely house, with his own room with a fireplace, getting food, medical care. That bothered me. Since we had nothing to talk about, I was just waiting for him to die, which didn’t make sense. I dropped out.

At a meeting of the buddies in Eastern Market, we were all sharing stories. I said I was leaving, that I was getting burnt out, that it was too hard to deal with this guy dying. But I said, ”You know what I would love to do? I would love to start an organization for black people that would teach holistic ways of dealing with HIV.” And that was it. I dropped out of being a buddy and went on about my business. God, again the spirit, the voice — I had put my wish out there and it was being made real even before I knew it.

MW: Us Helping Us was an answer to your prayer?

SIMMONS: Exactly. I was seeing Prem Deben, a hypnotherapist for counseling, and he told me about Us Helping Us, that they were going to have a meeting. I said, ”That’s on my birthday, so I probably won’t want to go.” Later on, I see a flier about Us Helping Us having a meeting about HIV. So on my birthday, a Saturday, I’m laying in bed thinking, ”What do you want to do today?” The phone rings. I pick it up and Martin, who had the support group, says, ”Hey, did you hear about this group that’s starting called Us Helping Us?” ”Yeah, but it’s my birthday, so I’m not sure if I’m going.” I lay in bed and I said, ”Okay, God. It’s obvious you want me to go to this meeting. I will go to this meeting.”

That’s when I went to my first meeting of Us Helping Us. That’s when I met Rainey Cheeks. And that’s when that part of the story begins.

Rainey and Prem Deben, in 12 weeks they taught us holistic ways of nutrition, diet, meditation. What they taught us, what they had put together, was just incredible. We started off the first week talking about internal cleansing, enemas, whole foods, the lymphatic system, meditation and exercise.

It was incredible, but Rainey and Prem were getting burnt out. They’d been doing it since 1985. So we said, ”Teach some of us to do it.” We had two weekends of training. Seven of us who had gone through the group, they taught us how to facilitate. Then we co-facilitated with them for the next group — that was our internship. Then we would get permission to have our own group in our own house. We ended up having three separate groups going on at three separate houses.

At that point, Rainey came to me and asked me if I would consider becoming the executive director of Us Helping Us. I said, ”No, you’ve got to be out of your fucking mind.” [Laughs.] ”I’m Dr. Simmons and I teach at Howard, and you have no money so why the hell would I do it?” And he says to me, ”I’ll pray on it.”

About three months later a chairperson called me up and told me they were not going to renew my contract, after 12 years at Howard. They said it was because I had not published enough. I knew it was because I had published a gay piece.

I remember calling Rainey, devastated. Twelve years at Howard and now I’m being told that in three months I’m unemployed.

First he said it was horrible. Then he said, ”Wait a minute! Maybe now you can be executive director of Us Helping Us.”

I took the telephone receiver away from my head and said, ”Wait a minute – I’m being set up.” [Laughs.] I said, ”Okay, I’ll do it as long as I get my unemployment.” If you can’t anything happening after 10 months, I’ve got to find a job. He said fine. We met that summer and organized the board, redefined the mission. That gave us the credibility so that we could start applying for funding.

MW: What niche did Us Helping Us fill?

SIMMONS: We were the only black organization saying, ”You can live with this disease.” And because we were black and gay, we were dealing with the whole cultural racism that you’d deal with at a place like Whitman-Walker before Whitman-Walker became more diverse. It was basically a white, gay men’s clinic.

By 1993, we were renting a two-bedroom house on L Street for our office. We would have our holistic, support group there. I can remember guys saying, ”I parked my car outside for the last three weeks but I didn’t have the courage to come in.” Or guys coming to the door, their hands shaking. I remember saying to them, ”It’s okay. You’re home now. This is your home.”

When I think about that, I start crying. [Choking up.] That’s what it was like. There was no hope. None. Us Helping Us gave it to them.

MW: Fast-forwarding to the here and now, what’s next for Us Helping Us, and for you?

SIMMONS: I want Us Helping Us to go on forever, because Us Helping Us is not really about HIV. It is — that’s why it got started — but a long time ago I realized we had to become an organization for the empowerment of black, gay men specifically, and black people in general. There has to be an organization that’s going to deal with the social justice issue of homophobia in the black community. There has to be an organization that advocates and looks out for the interests of black, gay men, that deals with the mental-health needs, given the racism and the homophobia that they go through. Us Helping Us should always be that kind of organization. Should they find a cure for HIV tomorrow, to me, Us Helping Us still needs to be here.

Lately, I’ve been asking of God, ”What do you want me to do for the next 20 years? Now that I’ve done this, where do you want me to go?” I know I want to write a book. The story from the second grade and having the baby with Larry, to being suicidal, to going to college, the whole bit, Howard, Us Helping Us — I’ve got to share the story, because there may be another kid out there, a decade from now, in another part of the world, who is gay and thinks he’s the only one. Like I thought for so long in my life. I thought I was the only one till I was about 15.

I’m already thinking about my retirement. For the last five years I’ve been working to really make Us Helping Us able to survive when I leave. We have built up programs. I’ve got really good staff. We’ve got all the systems in place. We own our own building now. We are secure.

All the pieces — in theory — are in place that it can go on without me.

For more information about Us Helping Us, People Into Living Inc., call 202-446-1100 or visit www.uhupil.org.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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