Remembering my mentor, Black gay activist and community pillar Dr. Ron Simmons

OPINION: The former Howard University professor dedicated his life's work to HIV/AIDS awareness and equity for the LGBTQ community

Left to right: Keith Boykin and the late Ron Simmons. (Photo: Courtesy of Keith Boykin)

There are moments in history when forces of grief converge into a tragic storm. This past week was one of those moments for me.

After spending Memorial Day at the Houston National Cemetery mourning the loss of my stepfather who had to be buried in March without a funeral, I learned of the police killing of unarmed Black motorist George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Days later, the United States reached a grim milestone as its official death toll from the coronavirus pandemic reached 100,000 people. Then, as protests for Floyd and Breonna Taylor evolved into a national rebellion live on television screens late Thursday night, I received the dreadful news that my longtime friend and mentor, Dr. Ron Simmons, had passed away.

I first encountered the name Ron Simmons when I read an essay, “Some Thoughts On The Challenges Facing Black Gay Intellectuals,” in Essex Hemphill’s groundbreaking 1991 book, Brother to Brother.

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Ron Simmons (Photo: Todd Franson / Courtesy Metro Weekly)

I highlighted several sections of Ron’s powerful words in that essay, but none stood out more than this: “We can be gay and committed to ‘Blackness,’ committed to the liberation of Black people. We can be clenched-fist militants no matter what gender we love.”

Ron’s essay inspired me. I had been a student leader of the campus protest movement for diversity at Harvard Law School and just begun to self identify as a gay man a few months earlier. His piece allowed me to believe that I could continue my activism in the African-American community as an openly gay man.

Not long afterward, I wrote an essay called “A Black Gay Manifesto” and sent it to him for his thoughts. Although he was a busy faculty member at Howard University, he took the time to write back, take me under his wings and engage me in a conversation that lasted for decades.

When Minister Louis Farrakhan convened the Million Man March in October 1995, Ron joined our contingent of more than 200 Black gay men who proudly marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. chanting “We’re Black! We’re gay! We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

READ MORE: Realizing my Blackness before my queerness in wake of George Floyd 

The photographs he took at the march are saved in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, along with other photos he took over the years of Black queer luminaries, including Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, Phill Wilson, Barbara Smith, Mabel Hampton, Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam. He was also a field producer, photographer and cast member of Marlon Riggs’s award-winning documentary film, Tongues Untied.

Ron was the single most important person in my intellectual development as a Black gay man. He is one of the few people to have been quoted in all four of the books I have published.

“The freeing of Black gay genius requires that we develop institutions to secure the foundation of the Black gay community,” he was quoted in my second book. When my third book was published with a cover photo of me in a tight black T-shirt, Ron promptly called me on the phone to ask a question: “I’m curious,” he said. “Are you selling books or beefcake?” I asked: “Why can’t it be both?” We laughed.

Years later, Ron wrote a deeply personal essay called “The Voice” for my fourth book, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough. He wrote about his own experience contemplating suicide, a dangerous bicycle accident, a fateful birthday, losing his job at Howard, and receiving an offer to run a fledgling nonprofit organization for no pay.

Despite all the challenges he had faced in life, he wrote, “I am convinced that this is the work I was destined for. And there may be more work to do. I’m just waiting for the Voice and fate to guide me.”

The Voice that Ron heard led him to serve as the executive director of Us Helping Us, People Into Living, a Washington, D.C.-based AIDS service organization. Under Ron’s leadership, the group became the first Black gay AIDS organization in the country to purchase its own building, a spectacular feat at a time when the epidemic was killing tens of thousands of Black gay and bisexual men.

And through it all, Ron continued to offer his time, talent and resources to mentor young activists, writers and thinkers in the community.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ron attended Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, where he was selected by his class as Most Likely to Succeed, and graduated in 1968, according to The Stephen A. Maglott Ubuntu Biography Project.

He earned a B.A. in Afro-American Studies, an M.A. in African History, and a M.S. in Educational Communications from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. He received his Ph.D. from Howard University and served on the faculty there for 12 years.

After a lifetime of service to the community, Ron retired from Us Helping Us in 2016. He was a friend and mentor to many, and he will be missed.

Keith Boykin is a CNN political commentator, New York Times best-selling author, and a former White House aide to President Bill Clinton.