Activist Phill Wilson reflects on his work fighting AIDS to save lives

After his AIDS diagnosis and loss of friends and loved ones in the 1980s, he turned his grief into action.

ByChristiane Cordero via KABC logo
Friday, October 21, 2022
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Phill Wilson has had leadership roles like Los Angeles' AIDS Coordinator, he helped create the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and has worked with two presidential administrations to fight HIV/AIDS.

For millions of people, LGBTQ+ History Month is a story of survival.

Phill Wilson's story - the one where he started the Black Aids Institute, bridged people to policy and turned his grief into action - that story - is also one of survival.

To understand it we have to go back to the 1980s, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

It emerged as the leading cause of death among young adults in the United States, taking more than 100,000 American lives by the end of the decade.

Phill Wilson was almost one of them. He was diagnosed at 30 years old.

"The counselor said that I probably had about six months to live. And so I should go home and put my affairs in order," Wilson stated.

There are, of course, reasons for him to celebrate that need no explanation. He knows how far he's come.

Wilson and his partner, Chris Brownlie, were diagnosed around the same time and started rallying to address the many disparities that come with AIDS, recognizing African-Americans in particular were not being served. So they took it upon themselves, starting with the community.

Wilson continued, "It was the community that moved science. It was the community that moved policy. It was the community that moved treatment. It was the community that moved equal rights."

It eventually led Wilson to leadership roles, as Los Angeles' AIDS Coordinator, helping create the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and working with two presidential administrations to fight the disease.

The disease that almost took him, and in 1989, took Brownlie.

"He died at about six o'clock in the morning in November, the sun was just rising. By nine o'clock I was in my office because there were going to be a whole host of people who were going to be dying that day. There were gonna be other people who were being admitted to the hospital that day."

The work they started together continued. And still does.

Wilson stated, "Had we not done the work on HIV and AIDS, we would not have a Covid-19 vaccine today. We would not have been able to manifest what I honestly believe has been a relatively rapid response to monkeypox."

There are still gaps to bridge and questions to answer. Among them is at the core of LGBTQ+ History Month.

"What is the responsibility of young people to quote-unquote remember the struggle."

Today, Pride Month and everything the rainbow touches speaks in tones of celebration.

A generation of queer adults did not live through the AIDS epidemic. They can take that work for granted.

Which, perhaps is frustrating for those who put the work in. But wasn't that the point of the work itself.

"Do I really want anyone else to go through what we went through? Absolutely not. I don't. So, I don't know."

"Isn't that the ultimate question about history, and respect for history and how you think about history? To kind of have that battle." concluded Wilson.

Reference material coordinated in conjunction with the ONE Archives Foundation.

The ONE Archives Foundation is the independent community partner that supports ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries, the largest repository of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) materials in the world. Founded in 1952 as ONE Inc., the publisher of ONE Magazine, ONE Archives Foundation is the oldest active LGBTQ organization in the United States. In 2010, ONE Archives Foundation deposited its vast collection of LGBTQ historical materials with the USC Libraries. Today, the organization is dedicated to promoting this important resource through diverse activities including educational initiatives, fundraising, and range of public programs.

ONE Archives Foundation's flagship K-12 education programs provide educators with the resources they need to teach accurate and authentic LGBTQ+ history, including professional development webinars and free LGBTQ+ lesson plans available for download on our website. In addition, ONE Archives Foundation mentors youth to become ambassadors for LGBTQ+ history through the Youth Ambassadors for Queer History program. Learn more here.