AIDS activist says the fight’s ‘bigger than marriage’


By John Bayles

It’s impossible to pigeonhole Charles King, executive director of Housing Works. He’s a pioneer, a radical, a respected voice in the L.G.B.T. community and a veteran of both the local and national effort to provide housing and resources for people living with H.I.V. and AIDS.

He’s one of the only openly gay men living with H.I.V. who is in charge of an AIDS service organization. He’s also the son of a Southern Baptist preacher from Texas and is a Yale graduate. And when he begins speaking about the gay community and AIDS, you feel as if you’re being preached to, perhaps because King is an ordained minister himself who still teaches a Sunday Bible-study class to his clients and speaks with a slow, committed, thoughtful cadence.

“What I find very frustrating about the organized gay community,” said King, “is all too often it’s about what ‘I’m not getting.’ ”

King believes the gay rights movement is self-centered of late, focusing on results without paying attention to the systemic problems that have necessitated the fight. What’s frustrating to King is the inability, in his eyes, of the majority of the gay community to connect their struggles to the struggles of others.

“It’s not being able to translate,” said King. “The reason you’re not getting ‘it’ is because there are people out there who fundamentally think you’re different and you don’t deserve it.”

He said it’s the same mindset that leads to black people not getting it and to poor people not getting it. For King, the fight for gay rights, and the fight to provide services for people living with H.I.V./AIDS, cannot be separated from the bigger fight to end racism and sexism and class warfare. It was a combination of all of those individual struggles that ultimately put King in the position he’s in today.

“It’s more than connected,” King said of Housing Works and his own experiences. “To me, my experience of marginalization and stigmatization, and all that comes with that, made me very much appreciate other people in the world who are marginalized and stigmatized.” 

King didn’t come out of the closet until he saw a fellow preacher, at a Baptist Church in Connecticut, die of AIDS. King went to visit the man in the hospital and offered to pray with him, but the man said it wouldn’t do any good, because God was punishing him for being a homosexual.

King told him that was impossible, because if it were true then King would be lying in the hospital bed next to him. In quick order King went to his church and told his minister he wanted to resign and he didn’t want to put the congregation through the controversy that would come along with his coming out. He was convinced to stay at the church for six months, however, to lay the foundation for an AIDS ministry before he left.

Prior to that, when he was working at a church in San Antonio, King went out of his way to begin busing poor Chicano children from the barrio to Sunday school, children who previously had been systematically ignored by the ministry.

“Whether it’s poor black and Chicano kids living in the barrio who aren’t welcome in the First Baptist Church in a town in east Texas, or abused children at a children’s home in Round Rock,” he said, “my identification with those folks started first with my own experience.”

When he was a young man in divinity school at Yale, King’s father wrote him a letter “disowning” him, something King said happened numerous times for various reasons not much different from being a typical, rebellious teenager. But when he received this letter, he felt compelled to give his father a better reason and decided to write his own letter, resulting in the severing of all familial ties. 

King is an activist at heart; it just so happens he’s a gay man living with H.I.V. It is not that being a gay man made him an activist. For King, being gay is not reason enough, and neither is AIDS. As a New Yorker in the ’80s, King saw the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic take shape within segments of the gay community that had previously been silent and mostly invisible.

“In many ways, AIDS was kind of an indictment of a lot of the more-well-to-do gay New Yorkers,” said King. “At the time, they weren’t activists. They were working on Wall St., with their share houses on Fire Island and f—ing at night in the bathhouses. Otherwise they were in the closet. They only became activists when AIDS forced them into it.

“So many people said, ‘Now we got the drugs and we can go back to the way we were,’ without learning the lesson that our society is fundamentality flawed.”

During the ’80s King found a home with ACT UP, an AIDS activist group that became infamous for their protests. He saw in ACT UP a community similar to the church, but that actually practiced what it preached when it came to acceptance.

“Yes, it was full of rage and anger and all of that, but there was a tremendous amount of healing as well,” said King. “The camaraderie, the brotherhood, the bond that took place in that space — that’s something that I’ve very forcefully brought to the vision Housing Works. We are a healing community — sometimes a secular version of what I honestly believe the church should be.”

In 1990 King and three other ACT UP members established Housing Works as a reaction to the treatment of homeless people living with AIDS, particularly in the city’s housing program.

“The system was stratified by class, race and perceptions around mental illness and substance use,” said King.

At the time, the only existing housing programs required people to be sober for 120 days and excluded “active users,” a phrase King said was “code” for heroin users and crack addicts.

“A white gay man partying on the weekend doing 10 lines of coke — you still fit in,” said King.

The problem was that at the time, when the average diagnosis after contracting AIDS was six months to live, the system required spending four of those months looking for housing and trying to stay clean.

Today Housing Works is the largest AIDS service organization in the country and perhaps the most recognized voice in the fight to provide housing for people living with H.I.V./AIDS, including still-active drug users. Since its inception, the organization’s health clinics, job-training program and housing programs have assisted more than 20,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with H.I.V./AIDS.

Housing Works will have a float in Sunday’s Gay Pride March, and if King had his way, the banner would be a call to action and might read, “Look at the bigger picture.” During a time when the most visible fight within the national gay community is revolving around equal rights relating to marriage, King believes it’s bigger than that.

“If you think it’s about gay marriage,” King said, “if you’re part of the gay community, and that’s what you think it’s about, then you don’t get it. Because as much as it is important to achieve gay marriage, what it’s really about is human dignity.”