Wilson, Phill 1956–
Phill Wilson 1956–
Activist and educator
Phill Wilson is an outspoken man on a variety of subjects. Usually those subjects revolve around the issues of race, sexuality, and health. Phill Wilson is also a busy man, constantly travelling around the United States advocating for his causes. These are the demands on a person who has established himself as a leader in a field where a few people have wanted to go. Phill Wilson is a community organizer, activist, and educator. He has earned a leading role nationally in these activities through founding, working with, and participating in numerous organizations over the past dozen years.
Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy for AIDS Project Los Angeles, the second largest provider of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS services in the nation. “I started,” said Wilson in an interview in Out, “to do this work because I was interested in contributing to the lives of gay and lesbian people in general, and to the lives of black gays and lesbians specifically. And even more specifically to black gay men impacted by [human immunodeficiency virus] HIV and AIDS.” Phill Wilson has every reason to believe his job is extremely important. Phill Wilson is both gay and HIV positive.
Wilson grew up in Chicago. His parents had moved north from the southern states like many black Americans did after World War II. Both his parents worked outside the home, but they also provided a strong, supportive environment within the family. He grew up learning a commitment to family and to the community too. Wilson was often involved in civil rights activities in the Chicago area, such as Operation PUSH, Operation Breadbasket, and Black Expos, according to Out. He credits his family with continuing to support him after he came out to them regarding his sexuality.
Wilson told Out a story about how he and his former lover, Chris Brownlie, had been to a family reunion and an in-law commented to a cousin about their presence after they had left. “My cousin,” said Wilson, “who is a very committed, active, and faithful Jehovah’s Witness told this woman, ‘that man is my cousin. He is welcome here, and his partner’s welcome here. They’re a part of our family. You can’t come to my house and talk about my cousin and his partner that way. That’s not allowed.’”
Families are something Wilson speaks often about when discussing gays in the black community. He speaks of knowing racism, as all African Americans do, plus knowing of
Born April 22,1956, in Chicago; son of Tebo (a small business owner) and Ina (a banker) Wilson; children: Tiffany. Education: Illinois Wesleyan University, B.A. in theater and Spanish.
Self-employed owner of small giftware company, 1982–86; community organizer and activist, 1986—; Stop AIDS Los Angeles, director of outreach, 1986–88; Minority AIDS Project, deputy director, 1988; National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, national director of training, 1988–90; City of Los Angeles, AIDS coordinator, 1990–92; AIDS Project Los Angeles, director of public policy, 1992—. Member of board of directors of National Association of Black and White Men Together, 1986–88, National AIDS Network, 1988, AIDS Action Council, 1992—, and Minority AIDS Project, 1992—.
Selected Awards: Public Official of the Year, Stonewall Democratic Club; Man of the Year, Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Los Angeles, 1990; Man of the Year, Christopher Street West Association, 1992; Vision Liberty Award, Lambda Legal Defense Fund, 1994; Honored in public session by the California State Senate and County of Los Angeles; AIDS Lifetime Achievement Award, City of Los Angeles, 1994; Grand Marshall, Martin Luther King Celebration, Atlanta, 1995.
Member: Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum; Gay Men of Color Consortium; AIDS Health Care Foundation; National Minority AIDS Council.
Addresses: Home —Silverlake, CA. Work —AIDS Project Los Angeles, 1313 North Vine, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
discrimination based on sexual orientation. He often calls for the black community to accept their gay and lesbian members nearly as often as he calls for the white gay community to accept their black brothers and sisters as equals. “He calls them as he sees them,” said Mario Cooper, manager of the 1992 Democratic National Convention, in Out. Wilson’s work in founding and leading coalition-building organizations “allows him to speak frankly about those racial issues,” said Cooper.
Phill Wilson has always been busy. He was busy in high school with community activities and still managed to graduate early. He then went directly to Illinois Wesleyan University, where he stayed busy earning a Bachelor’s degree in theater and Spanish. Wilson had originally intended going on to law school after completing his degree, however, he never got there. He said in Out that, “I just didn’t like law professors, I didn’t like lawyers, I didn’t like law students.” Instead Phill went on to try to meet some other of the usual family expectations. He worked hard for American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and was married for a short time. He described himself as naive to his sexuality until he heard a radio interview with a publisher of gay magazines. He then went about trying to locate the gay community in Chicago and met his partner of 10 years Chris Brownlie in 1979.
In 1981 Wilson said he “had enough of the cold weather of Chicago.” He and Chris moved to the Los Angeles area. They ran a giftware manufacturing company called Black Is More Than Beautiful. By this time both Phill and his partner had heard of AIDS. Some of their friends had been ill or had died. Wilson said around this time both he and Chris had biopsies of their lymph nodes taken, because they had been swollen for a long time. “No one knew what caused AIDS then,” said Wilson. “The doctors told Chris and I that there were abnormalities to the lymph nodes but they couldn’t tell us what it meant.” As the years progressed more friends grew ill and people learned a virus caused AIDS. In 1986 California placed Proposition 64— a proposal calling for the forced quarantine of all people with AIDS—on the election ballot. Both Wilson and Brownlie volunteered to work for a committee opposing the passage of this proposal.
About the time of the November of 1986 election Brownlie became ill. Wilson said Brownlie’s illness, plus the amount of time they found themselves working on the ballot proposal led them to close down their giftware business. With their efforts Proposition 64 went down to defeat. In 1986 Wilson also founded a group called the AIDS Prevention Team. This group was started with a small grant Wilson received while volunteering with a social organization called Black and White Men Together.
In early 1987 Wilson and Brownlie were both diagnosed with HIV infection, which nearly always gives way to full blown AIDS, an often sexually transmitted condition in which the body’s immune system is depressed, making one susceptible to a host of health problems, usually becoming fatal. In fact, Brownlie’s illness was classified as AIDS. This diagnosis just seemed to make Wilson and Brownlie work harder. They also founded the AIDS Health Care Foundation around that time, which has grown into the largest nonprofit HIV medical services provider in Los Angeles County. It now includes the Chris Brownlie Hospice, named for Wilson’s partner.
In 1987 Wilson had become concerned that AIDS was too easily being ignored in the African American community. He also noted that the scant information available to the minority community ignored black gays and lesbians. Wilson went about trying to change this through the founding of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Conference and one year later the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum (BGLLF).
Wilson noted in POZ that “When you look at much of the information directed at gay men, much of the language and imagery is focused on white men, and my own experience as a black man is if I’m not explicitly included then I’m tacitly excluded.” He is no less critical of the African American community, also noted in POZ: “even now when you look at the AIDS prevention campaigns in African American communities, you’ll see that their priorities are not gay men and that often the agencies involved are hostile places for gays.” Last year BGLLF’s annual conference attracted more than 1,000 people to meetings in New Jersey. Wilson also founded the Gay Men of Color Consortium in 1990.
Beginning in 1988, Wilson was more frequently involved on the national side of the issues close to him. He took part in a major conference in Virginia with other lesbian and gay leaders originally summoned by author Larry Kramer. Wilson led a protest to the conference’s lack of racial parity and gained some respect from attendees. In 1990 Wilson was instrumental in putting together the first “Summit on Homosexuality in the Black Community” at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta. Out magazine stated that this meeting eventually led to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) endorsement of the gay, lesbian, and bisexual March on Washington in 1993.
In April of 1993 Wilson was one of the key note speakers at the march. In August of that same year he was back in Washington as a keynote speaker for the 30th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. When U.S. president Bill Clinton invited lesbian and gay leaders to meet with him shortly after his election, Phill Wilson was chosen as one of the gay community’s spokespeople.
As the organizing and activism has continued, the awards and recognition of Wilson’s work has grown. In 1990 he was voted Man of the Year by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center. Mayor Richard J. Riordan of Los Angeles awarded him the AIDS Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. In January of 1994 Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said, as quoted in BLK, that Wilson “ensured that voices of African Americans were heard in the struggle for lesbian and gay rights as well as in the fight against AIDS,” as they awarded Phill their Vision Liberty Award.
Phill Wilson is realistic in his work with AIDS. He knows the heavy losses of colleagues and friends. His lover Chris died in 1989. He wrote about the grief and anguish in Advocate magazine in 1992. He often speaks of his work as war. But the necessity of the work keeps him going. “If you don’t do any of that long term planning,” he told Out, “then you’re assuring that it’s going to be around another 5, 10, 15, or 20 years.” “By the time we have the infrastructure we have to have,” said Wilson in POZ, “I’ll probably be dead. But right now I’m doing what I’m doing and living my life as I see it.”
Advocate, February 12, 1991, p. 36.
BLK, January 1994, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1990, p. B3.
Out, February/March 1994, pp. 69–73, 141–42.
POZ, June/July 1994, p. 12–13; August/September 1994, p. 71.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a CBB interview with Wilson on December 28, 1994.
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