Amazing Journey

A. Cornelius Baker has gone from arts to advocacy, from the White House to Whitman-Walker, and is ready for more

Peruse A. Cornelius Baker’s résumé, and you might get more than you bargained for. Sure, you knew he worked for the George H.W. Bush administration or that he once headed the Whitman-Walker Clinic. You may even be familiar with his work for former Councilmember Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).

You might not be as likely to know he’s serving as the national policy advisor for the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition, or working as communications advisor and project director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases HIV Vaccine Research Education Initiative. Baker is the board chair of the Black AIDS Institute. He works with Us Helping US and the Campaign for All DC Families. That he’s a trustee with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, might be a bit more obvious — after all, in school he was a self-professed “theater queen.” He started political life as a Republican and is now a happily registered Democrat. And by the way, the “A.” stands for Antonio.

A. Cornelius Baker
A. Cornelius Baker
(Photo by Todd Franson)

On and on. The Baker file is thick.

“It’s important to meet one’s obligations,” he says plainly, “to your family and your society. I do what I can. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. But it’s really important to make the effort.”

And although he wasn’t able to make much of an effort to mark National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Feb. 7, instead trying to make his way back to D.C. from work-related meetings in San Francisco amid the mid-Atlantic’s blizzard, the message of the month — Black History Month — certainly isn’t lost on him.

“Whether it’s Martin Luther King Day or National Black HIV/AIDS Awarness Day or Black History Month, it’s important to reflect on who we are as a people, where we come from, what our goals and visions are, and of course to celebrate our families and our progress. But I think it’s also important to find ways to keep the work moving forward, to keep the progress moving forward. Our obligation while we’re here is really to make things better for the next generation. That’s something during this month to really commit ourselves to.”

For Baker, part of that commitment has to mean taking care of himself. In 2004, while heading the Whitman-Walker Clinic during a financial crisis, his health took a hit in the form of plummeting T cells. It’s a hit that he says made him stronger. It might also make it harder to pull him away from down time with his partner, Greg Nevins, who heads Lamdba Legal’s Southern Regional Office out of Atlanta.

Whatever he’s doing, he’s ensuring a sunny disposition. And if the down time helps with the stress, it also seems to leave him more energized than ever. With his recent appointment to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, it’s a good thing, too.

METRO WEEKLY: I know it’s rude to ask, but I don’t know how old you are.

A. CORNELIUS BAKER: I actually love that question — 48. Well, I don’t actually love the question, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, in two regards. I hate when people in our community say, “Oh, I’m so old.” Much of the work that we’ve been doing for the past few decades with AIDS is so that people can get old. The other part is that I’m just starting to look out at 50. We’re going into [nearly] the 30th year of AIDS and there was no reason to imagine that was going to happen, that we would live to 50. At that time, it was hard to imagine even living to 25 or 30.

MW: There are also going to be new challenges with a generation of seniors living with HIV, won’t there?

BAKER: Absolutely. You’re glad you have [medications], but you just get so tired of taking pills and going to doctors.

Every time I stand up, it’s like a nightmare. [Laughs.] I think my grandmother can get out of a chair quicker than I can.

MW: You’ve packed plenty into 48 years. Can you give me a sort of professional timeline?

BAKER: I moved here in August 1982 to do my internship at the Kennedy Center. I came from Syracuse, N.Y., a month before my 21st birthday.

I [majored in] comparative literature, with a focus on theater. I had done a semester in Paris, a semester in London, culture and arts stuff. I wanted to finish my last semester with an internship someplace. It was either Washington or New York. I applied for the [American University] Washington Semester Program and a Kennedy Center internship and got accepted to complete the last couple of credits I needed.

MW: Did you know Washington very well?

BAKER: I didn’t know it at all. Maybe two or three years before, I had taken a bus down to Florida to see my grandparents. I had, like, a seven-hour layover in Washington. I was 16 or 17. I walked around, saw the White House, saw the Naples.

MW: What’s the Naples?

BAKER: A seedy gay bar right across the street from the old Greyhound station. 12th and [New York Ave. NW]. I found it intriguing.

MW: Did you go in?

BAKER: I did go into the bar. I had a Coca-Cola. I didn’t actually know what it was when I was walking in, although I have to say the “gaydar” went off really quickly. People were probably still wearing hot pants. [Laughs.]

I asked them where the White House was and they told me. I walked around, then went back and got back on my bus. And I thought, “Washington is pretty neat.”

So when my faculty advisor told me about the Kennedy Center opportunity, I was very excited.

After [the internship], I had to make a decision whether to go back to Syracuse or move to New York, where a lot of my friends were moving. But I ended up getting a job at City Paper as an arts editor.

MW: How long were you at City Paper?

BAKER: About a year. I left because I started working on Carol Schwartz’s [City Council] campaign. I found her intriguing.

I’m from Syracuse. Everyone was pretty much moderate Republican. I had worked on George [H.W.] Bush’s [presidential] campaign in 1980. So the first thing was that she was running as a Republican in a place like Washington. Her views were pretty similar to views that I’d grown up with. I found some of the reaction to her really kind of surprising. There wasn’t anything radical about her views, per se. I found it all kind of odd. The hostility toward her really bordered on sexism; racism of a form.

I went to work on her campaign, with the finance team. She won and I went back to the Kennedy Center part time.

During that period, the AIDS epidemic was beginning to intensify. I went to that famous [1983] Lisner Auditorium meeting that the [Whitman-Walker] Clinic held. Of course, I was deeply upset and concerned about what was happening. I already knew that HIV was starting when I left school. We talked about it in college with friends who were gay. We were all concerned, reading about it in The New York Times and stuff.

Then I went to work part time for Carol doing research work. I became her administrative assistant much later — 1988, somewhere around there. Then Carol’s husband, sadly, committed suicide and Carol left the Council to take care of her children. When she left, I had to think about what I wanted to do, and immediately volunteered on George [H.W.] Bush’s [1989] inaugural program. I was pleased he had won the election. Then I got offered a position to come to the White House to help work on the transition, which I did. I worked with Ron Kaufman, who was in presidential personnel and later the political director for the White House. When the transition was done, I thought about going back to the arts and he said, “No, I think we need you to go over to [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services].” And I did. I worked in the AIDS office there as an appointee.

I left in May ’92 to become the first policy director for the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA).

MW: Did you want to stay at the White House?

BAKER: It was a difficult decision. I felt very honored to have worked for the president and to have supported many of the achievements we were able to make, from the Americans with Disabilities Act to all sorts of other initiatives, really working on our response to the epidemic.

But it was a difficult time. It was when Pat Buchanan’s [1992 presidential] campaign was starting. There was increasing homophobia. When Buchanan ran against the president and really spewed a lot of ugly things — his whole “culture war” — there were people you would’ve expected to repudiate it more strongly, and that did not happen. I think that gave legitimacy to its entrance into the party’s core ideas.

We need in our country a vibrant two-party system — or more. But the discussion, the debate, should be about ideas. The debate should be about philosophies on how government can operate, or not. It should not be about the inherent rights and dignity of any person.

Although I was not an issue, it was becoming an issue for the party. It made me really uncomfortable. I have to say that I expressed concern to the people at HHS and at the White House and received nothing but support.

But the position at NAPWA opened up and it was exciting. I really felt that NAPWA was a place where I could go and really advance some policy work for people with AIDS. I was at NAPWA for eight years — four years as a policy director and four years as the executive director.

Then I left NAPWA to go to Whitman-Walker. I was already on the board. I think I became executive director in January 2000. I’d been raising money for the clinic since ’83 and had co-chaired the 1991 and 1992 AIDS Walks.

MW: The last time I interviewed you at length was when you were leaving the clinic in 2004. You told me then that the stress of the job was hurting your health — your T-cell count, particularly.

BAKER: It happened very quickly. [My T-cell count] went down to 11 and I had to go on meds and stuff. It got really scary. I worked with my doctor about it. I had a couple of good doctors up at [the National Institutes of Health] who saw me through treatment and my T cells coming back. It was a difficult place.

I also went to Apopka. I hung out with my grandmamma. I hung out with my cousins. I needed to be just sitting in the sunshine, sitting with my grandmother, knowing that she was okay and that I was okay. Without that four or six months, whatever it was, I would’ve been dead.

Then phone calls started coming: “Can you help with this?” “Can you help with that?” And it was time to get back to work.

MW: So when you were taking that bus down to Florida, you were heading to Apopka?

BAKER: It’s 12 miles north of Orlando. It was definitely rural when I was growing up. It was orange trees and sugar cane and rattlesnakes. Lots of fun. [Laughs.]

MW: When you were riding down to Apopka in your teens, did you think of yourself as gay? You were going to the Naples, after all.

BAKER: It was right outside the door! [Laughs.] I think I did, but I never had a defining moment. I never dated girls and all of that. But I remember when I was growing up, maybe into my early 20s, my grandmother would always end every call with something like, “Be good. One day you’ll get married.” Always something about that. Then in ’84, when I was 23 or 24, I went home [to New York] and I told my mom that I had seroconverted, that I was positive. I was at the train station, about to head back to Washington, and we had a long conversation. I talked to my grandmother the following weekend. She said, “I just want you to be careful and have a long life.” That was our process.

MW: Your family sounds very subtle.

BAKER: We can get a little dramatic with each other, but that means we just don’t talk. [Laughs.]

As gay people, we often struggle within our families. But I also think that, just, families struggle. But then the love that is so fundamental, so resonant, is really always there. I feel very fortunate to be rooted in family. I come from a family that has so much love within it, regardless of any temporary struggles. That just makes me happy.

MW: Coming out as gay can be a shock to the family, but telling them you’re HIV-positive can really shake them up.

BAKER: One of the reasons I even had this conversation with my mother was because I’d been in Syracuse and I asked about a friend I’d gone to school with. He had come home from New York really sick with this “mysterious illness” — we all knew what that was — and they didn’t think he was going to live. Michael was very gay. I’d done student theater and all my friends were theater queens. Going home for the holidays, you’d ask about people. And it wasn’t just Michael. Later it would be someone else. They’d be gone. Scott Benjamin, my friend since I was 6, died in ’87. People got sick. And they died.

We still talk about it, but it’s like a check-in. When you live your life every day working on HIV, it’s kind of nice to go to a place where you’re just a kid, just a member of the family. Where it’s just barbeque and sweet-potato pie, and that’s the most exciting thing anyone’s going to talk about.

MW: Out of Apopka, how do you keep stress at bay?

BAKER: Two things: I get to work in ways that I want to work. We’re working-class people. There’s no huge trust fund or anything like that. But I’m fortunate. I’ve had a good education. I’ve had good experiences. I’m able to use that well to do work that I care about. When you’re in an environment where you’re working well as a team of people who have a shared vision and you’re working to support each other, the stress goes away.

What I also know — this is from being in Florida those months — is what my grandmother said to me: “There is always a place here for you.” Tomorrow, if I needed to pack everything up — obviously, Greg would have me in Atlanta [laughs] — I could go home. I could work at the Winn-Dixie and I could be content.

My stress, the politics you go through, it made me stronger — and smarter. I’m appreciative of what I was able to contribute to the clinic. There were really just hard days, when the city wasn’t paying us, when we had to pay off our debt, all that stuff. But we got through it.

MW: Do you have any formal ties to the clinic today?

BAKER: No. I’ve just been invited to serve on this sort of leadership advisory committee. I told [WWC Executive Director] Don [Blanchon] if they’d like me on it, that’s fine, but they don’t need to do it out of politeness or anything. If there’s a way I can help, I’m always willing to help. It’s what I’ve been doing since I moved to Washington. That’s important.

MW: Clinic committees aside, you’ve also just accepted an appointment to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA). That’s particularly exciting.

BAKER: It is. First, I get to work with a lot of people on the council I have a great deal of respect for. Helene Gayle [M.D.], our chair, is such a profound leader who has done so much already. Other colleagues, like Phill Wilson, who I get to work with at the Black AIDS Institute. It’s always a joy to be with Phill.

When your president calls you, you answer. Certainly as a person with HIV, I feel enormously privileged to be here in the United States. My life probably would’ve been cut much shorter without that privilege. If it means a couple of hours less sleep to serve your country, I’m willing to do that. It’s such an incredible honor.

MW: In your current work, you were also just at the 2010 National African American MSM Leadership Conference in Atlanta. Were you simply attending, or did you speak?

BAKER: I spoke. I participated in a policy-and-advocacy training. I did some education around HIV-vaccine work, research.

It was such a good conference. The level of engagement, the level of thought, of people’s commitment, was all so high. At a time when it’s estimated 46 percent of black gay men are HIV positive, it was so rewarding. It was very moving to see so many people — particularly black gay men, but also people who care about the lives of black gay men — from across the country working together to benefit our communities. We haven’t always worked together well. This conference just showed us enormous possibility.

One of the things I was really impressed by were the number of younger black gay men who are getting their M.P.H.s and their Ph.D.s, really investing themselves in the science and the research. And they’re committed to continuing this forward. Two years from now, I may want to be in Atlanta, if Greg will let me, just planting tomatoes in the garden. [Laughs.] There are days when I really, seriously want to be doing that. So it’s just great to know there are these dynamic young advocates who are really moving forward and thinking of how we really respond to the epidemic in the 21st century. It’s really important.

MW: Do you really think about retirement? About planting tomatoes in Atlanta?

BAKER: My grandmother just stopped working at 86, and she’s been very sad about not heading out every day. My mom’s been saying she’s going to retire for the last eight years. Mm-hmm. [Laughs.]

Obviously, there will be periods of rest. My body has to have them and my mind has to have them. But I also know that until you die, you have to contribute.

Greg likes Washington, but I can’t see him leaving the South, to tell the truth. And I have such deep friendships here. I can’t see not having a place in Washington. But we will spend an equal amount of time in Atlanta.

MW: As you continue the work then — and HIV/AIDS work can be awfully depressing — I’ve got to say that I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with you that doesn’t include laughter.

BAKER: God, it’s the best stuff for you. If I have to take Atripla every day, I’m going to do it with a laugh! [Laughs.] For people who don’t get that, it just seems they miss out on so much. Look, I certainly have the days where it’s just hard to get out of bed. It’s important to say I don’t have a special brand of HIV. I have the same HIV that millions of people around the world struggle with. For most, at some point you have a really bad day. It can be diarrhea out of nowhere, or you have a crushing headache, or your bones are hurting, or you’re just tired. You don’t really want to take that pill. You certainly don’t want to give your blood anymore. You don’t want to have people asking about your T cells or your virus. I certainly experience that. I also have to say that the experience, it does make me angry. But if you’re going to be angry, do something with it. Rather than just sitting around being angry or binging out on crystal meth, I would much rather put it to work.

MW: With that work, so far, is there something that makes you particularly proud?

BAKER: That’s a very good question. Working toward the presidential apology for the Tuskegee syphilis study — I wasn’t the only person working on it — when that moment finally came about, it just felt good. When we created National HIV Testing Day at NAPWA, that was important. At the clinic, we had a hole in the roof over the medical records department. We went to Congress to get an earmark to fix that hole.

Those are just small moments, but each of those adds up to a body of work and a life. You want to do something like that every single day, so that at the end of it you’re able to look at a very full and complete life.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.