Monday, November 10, 2008

Remembering consummate gay men's health activist Hank Wilson

by Chris Bartlett

I was sad to read in Michael Petrelis' blog that Hank Wilson died today (Sunday, November 9, 2008). This brief obituary is my effort to start the process of transitioning him from elder to ancestor for me. He certainly ranks in my estimation as one of the lions of the gay men's health movement.

Hank was a gay men's health activist from the earliest days-- he showed up at all the conferences, attended protests, and cajoled numerous political figures to keep gay men's health high up on the agenda for our communities. He started his activism work in the early 1970s and was a participant in many of the great moments of post-Stonewall San Francisco gay history.

He was an early activist in numerous San Francisco organizations in the 1970s, including CUAV (Community United Against Violence) Speakers Bureau, Gay Teachers Coalition, and the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club. He participated in the fight against the Briggs Initiative (which sought, unsuccessfully in the end, to ban gay teachers). Information about many areas he was interested in can be found in the listings of his collections at the Online Archives of California (collection listed here).

He successfully pushed for employment protection for gay teachers in SF in 1975. The SF Board of Education voted 7-0 for a non discrimination policy which omitted sexual orientation. Wilson and two other teachers came out publicly the next day and rallied the community.

It was a natural evolution of his gay activism to focus on the gay health crisis of HIV/AIDS emerging in 1981. He formed the Committee to Monitor Poppers in 1981 in the context of the emerging and spiraling epidemic. In 1982, Wilson and gay activist nurse Bobbi Campbell, one of the first public persons with AIDS, formed the AIDS Political Action Network in SF and got the California Nurses Association to issue a call for government response and funding to the spiraling epidemic. He joined with San Francisco PWAs in organizing the first AIDS Memorial Candlelight March in 1983. He was also arrested at the University of California Regents meeting in 1985 protesting the failure to increase the AIDS research budget. In 1984, he was Cofounder of Mobilization Against AIDS and picketed then Rep. Barbara Boxer, now US Senator and AIDS supporter,to get the Democratic controlled House and Senate to hold congressional hearings. A week after his picket the hearings were scheduled. He was an active member of ACT UP Golden Gate, and a long-term survivor of HIV himself.

I met him first in the early 1990s as a critic of poppers and the poppers industry. Hank collected every bit of research he could find and aggregated it into an anti-poppers report that was written for the layman. He went everywhere he could to tell people about his belief in the dangers of poppers. When I completed a survey of 1400 gay and bi men in Philadelphia, he took me out to lunch to find out what we had learned about poppers and poppers use. He then included that work in his poppers report. His report was controversial- the gay media (often funded by poppers companies) were hesitant to bite the hand that fed them, and he was often frustrated at the lack of interest in poppers-related health issues by the media and by gay communities.

He attended the Gay Men's Health Summits in Boulder and told me great stories about attending the White Night Riot (which followed the slap-on-the-wrist manslaughter verdict for Dan White for the assassinations of Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978). He described to me how he and his friends had grabbed newspapers, set them on fire, and dumped them into the empty police cars. Many of you may have seen the results in the footage of "The Times of Harvey Milk"--- numerous police cars went up in flames as a protest against the brutality of the verdict, and the feeling that the San Francisco police had protected and supported the assassin Dan White.

I was hoping that he would attend the recent Gay Men's Health Leadership Academy in May 2008 organized by Shane Snowden at UCSF. Shane and I talked about honoring him there in the midst of the 50 participants, as a way of acknowledging this pioneer of gay men's health. Unfortunately, he did not feel well enough to attend. We (the gay men's health movement) may want to think about an ongoing way to honor his contributions.

Many of you may see "Milk", the new film about Harvey Milk's life. If and when you see it, remember that Hank Wilson was a powerful participant in the world documented there. And he dedicated his adult life to advocating for a broad vision of gay men's health-- founded on the principles of gay liberation, human rights, and awareness of the structural forces that impact our day-to-day health


The death notice follows below:

Henry "Hank" Wilson, who for more than 30 years has been a leader of both the Queer Liberation and AIDS Communities,died peacefully at 4 P.M. Sunday November 9th in Davies Hospital.

A long-term HIV/AIDS survivor and "Thriver" he succumbed to Lung Cancer.

I had seen him in the hour before; Hank was under sedation and was sleeping deeply, so I did not wake him.I am thankful that his passing was so gentle.

I will post more as information becomes available.

Remembering one of my heroes,

Rodger Brooks


  1. good site and provides a variety of health treatment like.

  2. Hank will always be appreciated for all he did. Regrettably, though, his legacy was long ago tainted by his one-man campaign against poppers. Hank was a good guy, but his incessant anti-popper war was never warranted and it gave him a bad name among many responsible researchers who understood the causes of AIDS and who knew that poppers were neither the cause of AIDS (one of Hank's early allegations), nor significantly associated with any of its opportunistic infections -- especially KS, where Hank's misguided claims were wildly tossed about but soundly dismissed by credible researchers over the years.

    As Bruce Voeller, Ph.D., the researcher who gave AIDS its name, once said of Hank's campaign: "In short, the much vaunted body of research supposedly demonstrating a link between "poppers" and AIDS does not withstand close scrutiny. If a link exists it still remains to be proven."

    No significant link was ever demonstrated, and Dr. Voeller went on to warn of the ongoing anti-popper campaign that: "When mediocre or even plain bad scientific research is politically exploited by AIDS institutions eager to appear to be earning their keep, or by the media -- ever keen to fan any spark of controversy, or zealots riding their favorite hypothesis saddled up as fact, the public is in danger."

    None of us are perfect, and Hank's campaign demonstrated that. His life was dedicated to helping others. May he rest in peace.

  3. While Chris Bartlett's eulogy and summary of Hank WIlson's many contributions to gay activism and health during his lifelong struggle with HIV infection, the anonymous posting that followed is as excellent an example of community disdain for health activists who challenge their assumed right to use whatever drugs and engage in whatever risky behaviors that desire as any I have seen on this or other gay health blogs. Bruce Voeller did not come up with the name for Acquired Immune Deficiency Disease, a panel of medical experts (which Voeller never assumed to be) did despite some community opposition to that name before the discovery of HIV. And Voeller is also the person who announced at the first Gay Men's Prevention Summit held just before the First International AIDS Conference in Atlanta, GA, 1995, that he had been using nonoxynol-9 as a rectal microbicide for decades and that several independent proctologists had certified his anus as "free of any lesions," thus proving the efficacy and safety of a compound we now know actually enhances rather than retards HIV infection through unprotected anal sex (UAS).
    Just because gay men love their poppers and got tired of hearing Hank Wilson talking about their potential and proven problems for the health of our community doesn't mean that he had a bad name among many responsible AIDS researchers. WHile they never were proven to be a cofactor in causing AIDS, they have been proven over and over again to both enhance infection and suppress immune function, something that has recently become a hot issue again in research on the drugs most responsible for the newly recognized increases in HIV infection rates among gay and bisexual men.
    I don't know who "anonymous" is or his bona fides, but wonder about his defense of the popper industry that Hank fought and Bruce Voeller, whose only interest towards the end of his career was making money off the commercialization of nonoxynol-9 as an antiviral anal microbicide even in the absence of any credible scientific data in vivo that it works. As it turned out to actually enhance HIV infection, you could say that Voeller's later advocacy of N-9 was contraproductive for gay health, while I don't think you can say anything negative about the selfless devotion to gay health activism that Hank Wilson epitomized. So much, in fact, that Project Inform gave him their "Activist of the Year" Award last year, which was the last time I saw him.
    The above posting is why blogs like this should not allow anonymous postings as they can become, as this one has, baseless ad hominom's from persons with their own agendas of slander.

  4. Thanks, David, for your comment. It saved me from having to say similar things about cowardly anonymous comments.

    The main point about Hank, as you say, is that he selflessly spoke out on behalf of gay men- and challenged the right of only "experts" to speak to gay men about what was or wasn't good for their health.

    Regardless of whether Hank was exactly right about poppers, his crusade led to a steady stream of (hopefully ongoing) research into the impact of nitrates on gay men's health.

    As radical an organization as the King County (Washington) Department of Public Health has published a brochure with the latest information on poppers ( . Though the substance's impact on the immune system appears to be not long lasting, there are plenty of other reasons to be aware of its impact-- even if its the skin burns, toxicity if accidentally swallowed (a real possibility if your upside down and being fucked, believe me), challenges breathing, or headaches.

    King County also reports that research studies consistently find poppers use to be independently associated with acquiring HIV or an STD.

    So please, Madame Anonymous, whether Hank had all the facts right or not, I applaud him for taking on educating our communities and not leaving that to the "experts" and "researchers"-- especially the ones funded by the poppers industry.

    Viva la Hank!

  5. For at least a few years, nothing meant more in Hank's life than trying to warn gay men about the dangers of using poppers (the volatile or alkyl nitrites). I met and began collaborating with him in 1983. Despite living 3000 miles apart, he in San Francisco and I in New York City, we were constantly in contact with each other through mail and the phone (no e-mail or Internet in those days). We published a series of pamphlets and wrote articles for those few gay papers that would publish anti-poppers articles. In 1986 we published a small book, *Death Rush: Poppers & AIDS* -- which is now online:


    The anonymous comment attacking Hank for speaking Hank out on poppers is obviously coming from the poppers industry itself. Hank and I took plenty of abuse, and this is nothing new.

    From a perspective of having studied them for 25 years, I can say that the medical literature on poppers is still valid. The biochemical properties of poppers have not changed: they are still mutagenic, flammable, carcinogenic, and in general highly hazardous to the health. The use of poppers is currently the only tenable hypothesis for the occurrence of kaposi's sarcoma (KS) among gay men.

    Hank and I didn't always agree on such things as the role (or non-role) of HIV in causing AIDS, but we were always friends. I'll miss him.

  6. i lived at the ambassador after hank no longer ran it, but i met him many times, and he was a wonderful man. he will be missed by many including me and about half of the tenderloin. rest in peace hank.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

select key words

2007 National HIV Prevention Conference 2009 National LGBTI Health Summit 2011 LGBTI Health Summit 2012 Gay Men's Health Summit 2012 International AIDS Conference abstinence only ACT Up activism advocacy Africa african-american aging issues AIDS AIDS Foundation of Chicago anal cancer anal carcinoma anal health anal sex andrew's anus athlete ball scene bareback porn barebacking bathhouses bears big bold and beautiful Bisexual Bisexual Health Summit bisexuality black gay men black msm blood ban blood donor body image bottom Brian Mustanski BUTT Center on Halsted Charles Stephens Chicago Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus Chicago Task Force on LGBT Substance Use and Abuse Chris Bartlett chubby chaser circumcision civil rights civil union Coaching with Jake communication community organizing condoms Congress crystal meth dating dating and mating with alan irgang David Halperin David Munar depression disclosure discrimination domestic violence don't ask don't tell douche downlow Dr. James Holsinger Dr. Jesus Ramirez-Valles Dr. Rafael Diaz Dr. Ron Stall drag queen Ed Negron emotional health ENDA Eric Rofes exercise Feast of Fun Feel the love... female condom fitness Friday is for Faeries FTM gay culture gay identity gay latino gay male sex gay marriage gay men gay men of color gay men's health Gay Men's Health Summit 2010 gay pride gay rights gay rugby gay sex gay youth gender harm reduction hate crime HCV health care health care reform health insurance hepatitis C HIV HIV care HIV drugs HIV negative HIV positive HIV prevention HIV stigma HIV strategic plan HIV testing hiv vaccine HIV/AIDS homophobia homosexuality hottie hotties how are you healthy? Howard Brown Health Center HPV human rights humor hunk Illinois IML immigration International AIDS Conference international mr. leather internet intimacy IRMA Jim Pickett leather community leathersex Leon Liberman LGBT LGBT adoption LGBT culture LGBT health LGBT rights LGBT seniors LGBT youth LGBTI community LGBTI culture LGBTI health LGBTI rights LGBTI spirituality LGV LifeLube LifeLube forum LifeLube poll LifeLube subscription lifelube survey Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano love lube lubricant Lymphogranuloma Venereum masturbation mental health microbicides middle Monday Morning Perk-Up MRSA MSM music National AIDS Strategy National Gay Men's Health Summit negotiated safety nutrition One Fey's Tale oral sex Peter Pointers physical health Pistol Pete pleasure PnP podcast policy politics poppers porn post-exposure prophylaxis PrEP President Barack Obama Presidential Campaign prevention Project CRYSP prostate prostate cancer public health public sex venues queer identity racism Radical Faerie recovery rectal microbicides relationships religion research safe sex semen Senator Barack Obama sero-adaptation sero-sorting seroguessing sex sexual abuse sexual addiction sexual health sexual orientation Sister Glo Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence smoking social marketing spirituality STD stigma stonewall riots substance abuse treatment substance use suicide super-bug superinfection Susan Kingston Swiss declaration syphilis Ted Kerr Test Positive Aware Network testicle self-examination testicular cancer testing The "Work-In" The 2009 Gay Men's Health Agenda Tony Valenzuela top Trans and Intersex Association trans group blog Trans Gynecology Access Program transgender transgender day of remembrance transgendered transmen transphobia transsexual Trevor Hoppe universal health care unsafe sex vaccines video violence viral load Who's That Queer Woof Wednesday writers yoga You Tube youtube