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,
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