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AIDS Activist Phill Wilson Turns 50, Never Expected to see 30
By: George E. Curry
NNPA Editor-in-Chief
Originally posted 4/25/2006

WASHINGTON (NNPA) Intellectually, Phill Wilson had it all figured out. As a Black, gay man living in Los Angeles during the 1980s, he presumed that he had contracted AIDS. Wilson and other anti-AIDS activists glossed over the issue by telling one another: Assume you have AIDS and behave accordingly.

But Wilson, an AIDS counselor with several government agencies, would learn for sure that he had contracted HIV when, at the age of 27, he decided to get tested.

I thought I should take the test so that when I talked to people, I could tell them what it was like to take the test, recounts Wilson, now executive director of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles. I took the test, I assumed that I was positive, and I thought I would go on the way I had been going and I would be a better counselor or advocate for having taken the test.

In real life, it wouldnt be that simple. He would be right about being HIV-positive, but wrong about how he would react to the news.

I remember leaving the testing facility and just being stunned, not quite knowing why I was stunned, Wilson says. I remember getting into my car and having a panic attack, just thinking: I am going to die. And it felt like I was going to die then and there. I sat there in the parking lot for a half-hour, crying.

It didnt help that Wilson had seen how AIDS ravages the body and those images flickered before him.

There were all these horrible images of people I had seen die, he remembers. That was going to be me.

But it wasnt.

I found out that I was HIV-positive at 27 and I didnt think 30 was an option, says Wilson, who has full-blown AIDS. So, to be 50 is amazing.

Phill Wilson is an amazing person. Hes throwing a big birthday bash this Saturday in Los Angeles. And its not your typical birthday party.

I dont know what the traditional gift is for someone on their 50th birthday let alone surviving for a quarter century with a life-threatening disease but I do know what I want, he said in the letter of invitation. As you know, I have dedicated my life to the eradication of HIV/AIDS, particularly in Black communities. So as a birthday present to myself, Ive committed to raising $250,000 for the AIDS organization nearest and dearest to my heart, the Black AIDS Institute.

The Black AIDS Institute, founded in 1999 by Wilson, is the only HIV/AIDS think tank that focuses exclusively on AIDS among African-Americans. And its birth came out of a near-death experience.

In 1996, I got very, very sick, Wilson says. My doctor basically had given me a matter of days to live. I was unconscious and I was in intensive care at Kaiser Permante. Everyone thought that I was going to die. When I came out of that, I could not work like I had been working, which is basically how I work today, the workaholic explains.

By 1999, there had been a lot of progress made in the Latino community and among women, but there had been very little progress made in mobilizing traditional Black institutions. It was clear to me that the only way to stop this epidemic in Black America was for our institutions to take ownership of the disease.

More than anyone else, Phill Wilson has energized and mobilized the Black community, calling out gays and straights, encouraging Black churches to become more active, getting the Black Press to devote more coverage to AIDS, and persuading national civil rights leaders to take a more active role in fighting the epidemic.

Its amazing the changes that have been happening in areas that weve been working, Wilson said. Over the past three years, our work with the Black media has been remarkable; we finally made a huge breakthrough with civil rights organizations, weve had an increase in the number of celebrities taking on HIV and AIDS and we have a very engaged college program.

Ironically, at the time the Black AIDS Institute has had its greatest penetration into the Black community and HIV/AIDS has disproportionately ravaged Blacks, especially women, gays and young people, funders have reduced their contributions to the Black AIDS Institute. Wilson says there are several factors responsible for that decrease, including static or reduced domestic spending on AIDS, many foundations shifting their funding priorities after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and a less than robust stock market, which directly affects the portfolio of foundations.

Its very strange that just as we have these huge successes programmatically, the financial difficulties are increasingly challenging, Wilson observes.
Still, he remains optimistic.

We can win this one, he says of the AIDS battle. If we can win this one, we can win a lot of these other battles also.

Wilson says it only now, as he celebrates his 50th birthday, that he realizes that death may not be just around the corner.

Ive lived my life as if its [death] is going to happen at any time, Wilson explains. In some ways, looking back on it, I think thats been a huge gift. I dont have any regrets. I always think: This is it. This is the life I got and Id better do with it something that matters.

Because he has had a second chance at life, Wilson is even more driven to help others.

I think God has a plan, there is a reason why I am still here, says Wilson. And I have an obligation to figure that out and to make it happen. That thing Im supposed to be here for is to make my contributions at stopping this epidemic in Black America. Everyday that Im still here my God is saying, There is still work for you to do.

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