AIDS Getting personal with state Rep. Greg Harris

by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

The accomplishments of State Rep. Greg Harris, D-13th, are numerous. Since being elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 2006, one of the highest-ranking openly gay elected officials to date in Illinois has done everything from addressing the need of comprehensive breast-cancer services to being the chief sponsor of the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act.

He is now meeting with leaders to talk strategy about a marriage-equality bill that could be introduced as soon as next year.

However, for this talk in this Windy City Times AIDS @ 30 series, Harris—who is HIV-positive—got a bit more personal. In this interview, he discussed the annual event known as World AIDS Day as well as the day he found out he had HIV, co-founding the agency Open Hand and what fighting HIV has taught him about himself.

Windy City Times: World AIDS Day, as you know, took place Dec. 1. Do you recall how you marked it?

Greg Harris: I continued to do my job and was really happy we were able to restore a lot of the funding to the areas that are important to be able to sustain themselves—in addition to prevention and care and treatment. [ Those areas include ] mental health, substance-abuse treatment and homeless services.

I think that, for a lot of folks, HIV is just one more issue that they deal with within the full spectrum of poverty in this environment. So it’s not only important that people have access to primary care and drugs, but if you don’t have a home or don’t have food or are struggling with addiction or mental-health problems, you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself on treatment. So we have to provide for all of these services—not just for people with HIV but for a lot of people who are suffering right now because of the economy.

WCT: Is that day like any other day for you? Some people say that every day should be World AIDS Day.

Greg Harris: I think it’s important now for the mainstream media, in particular; AIDS in American is an afterthought. I think there’s a lot to be said for the theory that prosperous white gay males can be taken care of through insurance and healthcare, and that HIV/AIDS became largely a disease of poverty—people who didn’t have the wherewithal to organize big fundraisers and get media attention. It has fallen off a lot of people’s radar, and more people think the problem has been solved. But if you look at the numbers coming out, you’ll see skyrocketing rates of infection in youths—particularly youths of color—and that tells a different story. It’s as bad or worse, and we’re paying less attention to it.

WCT: You mentioned on the Chicago Gay History website that you first read about GRID [ gay-related immune deficiency, later named HIV ] in 1981. Did you think we’d still be at this point where we’re still without a cure?

Greg Harris: I don’t know if I thought about that. I wish I had deeper thoughts.

WCT: Take me back to when you were first told you were HIV-positive.

Greg Harris: I was pretty much in total shock. I found out, not because I went to be tested for HIV, but because I had to go through a medical test for an insurance policy. They came back and said, “By the way, here’s this information.” Back then, in 1988, no one knew what this even was. It was pretty new in Chicago, and then [ I had ] to find a doctor who could deal with it. I went to my doctor, who just said, “I’m aware of this, but I know nothing about it. You need to find other physicians who know about this.” Then, like a number of other people, I dealt with it for many years with really bad addiction problems—so it wasn’t pretty. I was already down that road; however, finding out you had this horrible, deadly disease probably accelerated the process.

WCT: You’ve always struck me as someone who was very strong. How did you find the strength to crawl out of that hole?

Greg Harris: I think I did it the same way that most people do: You get a moment of grace and clarity—saying, “I can’t go on doing this”—and you ask for help. You then get the help you need. It did take me many years from the time I initially asked for help until the time I got it. There are some people who try to get clean and sober who can do it right away; other people struggle with it for many years, and I was one of those people.

I was pretty much out of money and out of places to live, and was just very fortunate to get some help.

WCT: Could you talk about how you co-founded [ the HIV/AIDS agency ] Open Hand?

Greg Harris: Sure. That was a case in which during the early days of AIDS, there was no support for people who had the disease. Having AIDS was stigmatized back then—and being gay was stigmatized back then. It was a time before when some people were even willing to say the words “gay” and “lesbian.”

We saw our friends getting sick and dying around us. The government was ignoring them. There were no community institutions to help them. The philanthropic community and the corporate community—this was something that wasn’t on their radars at the time. So, myself and the other dozen or so folks who started Open Hand said, “If we all know people who cannot feed themselves because they don’t have money or the strength to do it, then there have to be other people who don’t have friends or family who can support them.” We talked about the fact that no one who has AIDS in Chicago should ever go hungry. That’s how we started Open Hand.

WCT: You’ve also been involved with several other HIV/AIDS organizations.

Greg Harris: Yes. If you look at all of the organizations that are now big institutions—big buildings and big staffs—back then it was a bunch of people sitting around kitchen tables trying to figure this out. There was no network of primary care; there was no network of legal-assistance people; and there was no place to get food or pastoral care.

So, different people responded in different ways and set up [ agencies ] like Chicago House and Bonaventure. Howard Brown became an AIDS provider instead of essentially an STD clinic, which it had been for many years. You had the AIDS Pastoral Care Network and the AIDS Legal Council [ of Chicago ] . The AIDS Foundation of Chicago started harnessing corporate support.

None of these things that the community takes for granted even existed. The community had to start and create them from nothing—but it pulled so many people together. Everyone knew someone who was struggling with this disease and everyone was, to be honest, possibly terrified that they could be next. Back then, there were no drugs; I don’t believe AZT had come out yet. It was largely a death sentence.

WCT: I remember talking with the writer Edmund White, who told me that hundreds of his friends passed away in the ’80s. I can’t even imagine.

Greg Harris: Well, I virtually know no one of my ilk from back then. Very few, if any, survived.

WCT: You mentioned that there’s apathy about AIDS now. What do you think is the biggest reason for that?

Greg Harris: I think that, for a lot of folks, their responses or circumstances are driven by their own personal experiences. So for people right now who are taking care of their insurance and getting their meds regularly, the experience may be different. I don’t say this judgmentally, but I know the way people think about things. To them, it’s way less of a problem than it used to be.

It’s not necessarily apathy; it’s the thought that, for some people, the problem is solved for them and the people they know. For those who the problem is not solved, you can ask, “Why aren’t you organizing around AIDS?” and they’ll say, “In the whole scheme of problems—like getting a job and having food to eat—it’s just one more thing.” People say they’d love to be AIDS activists, but they need to be activists against poverty and homelessness—and they can’t do it all.

There are also fewer resources in the media. The media’s attention is sometimes diverted, and there are tons of other things to cover.

WCT: On a more personal level, how has being positive affected relationships and dating, if at all?

Greg Harris: The biggest problem about my dating life is being an elected official. I think then you get to the other problems: “I’m annoying” or “I’m HIV-positive.” It’d be easier if you didn’t spend half the year in another city [ Springfield, Ill. ] .

WCT: How do you feel the state government has responded to the AIDS crisis?

Greg Harris: I think it’s been fairly good, but 2012 is going to be a crisis year—not just for AIDS but for almost every cause. There had to be substantial cuts [ in 2011 ] , but this year we’re going to see another billion dollars in pension costs and another $5 billion in Medicaid liability. It’s going to post huge challenges, whether it’s school programs; breast- and cervical-cancer programs; or HIV programs. We’re going to have to make some tough decisions.

WCT: Was AIDS the main reason you got involved in politics?

Greg Harris: [ Laughs ] It was the only reason I got involved in politics. I had no interest in it before; I was happy just making a lot of money ( as CEO of a national trade association ) and running around and partying. The only reason we became involved in politics was we realized that if we didn’t step up, we were going to be ignored—and people were dying. Some people went into more direct action like ACT UP; others got into community organizing, which led into political activism.

The other thing about politics is that it’s a seniority-driven system, so the longer someone is in it … . When decisions are made and the doors are shut and the haggling goes on in the back rooms ( which are no longer smoke-filled ) , everyone who’s there is going to be represented and get their piece of the pie. It’s critical that our community be there when that pie is cut. We have to stand up for ourselves.

WCT: Living with HIV, what have you learned about yourself?

Greg Harris: I’m really rather stubborn, and I’ve learned to be grateful for each day I’m given. The other thing is that you don’t know which day will be your last, so you have to be careful to do the things you really want and need to do.


This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.