New Jersey Spotlight: Gary Paul Wright

This week we had the opportunity to interview Gary Paul Wright, founder of the African American Office of Gay Concerns in Newark, New Jersey. To preface, this was one of the most fun and charismatic men we have ever had the pleasure to talk to. Missing from this write-up and the transcript itself is buckets of laughter, loads of smiles, and an infectious joyousness. That being said, Wright tells a fascinating story of his queerness, his blackness, and the intersectionality of the two in relation to his identity and his career.

To start, Wright’s work is primarily in HIV/AIDS prevention. In relation to his work, Wright said, “so what we do is we are an HIV prevention organization. I mean that’s why we formed, it’s what our main purpose is. But now we serve more as a resource for our community, for the black gay community, and white community too, but there are bigger agencies serving bigger people and more people, so we’re kind of specific”. Going into the details of the AAOGC, Wright recounted, “We do HIV testing for the LGBTQ community. We do couples testing which is something I’m really trying to encourage. We actually do syphilis testing for gay men, we get funding to do that. I don’t know why just specifically for gay men but they said you know “can you do this with your program” and since they fund us I said yes”. Further than testing, however, Wright also remarked on the future of work within the HIV/AIDS prevention field. Wright spoke on the current accessibility of testing and contraceptives, as well as the advent of PrEP, an HIV preventative drug. Still, Wright says that work must be done surrounding the HIV stigma. Wright went on to say, “But I think the main thing we need to do for people living with HIV is to get rid of the stigma. There’s still that stigma. A lot of people are still in the closet about HIV, and I understand, cause you just don’t know where in this world people are really gonna fuck with you because you’re HIV positive”. Wright provides a profound message for HIV/AIDS prevention: there is still work to be done, and he’ll always be standing out there on the frontlines.

Further than that, however, was one of the most fascinating parts of the interview, being Wright’s remembrance of the intersections of race, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Wright first recounts, “everyone was saying it was a gay white man’s disease, why are you dealing with it? And we were trying to tell people, those of us way back in the late 80s, no it’s not a gay white man’s disease! You know, black people are getting infected. But we kind of had an upward battle”. He goes on to tell a story about a specific friend who accused him of bringing AIDS to black people, saying “he was like ‘I don’t talk with negroes like you’ and I was like ‘what?’ and he was a black guy, and he said ‘because y’all sleep with white folks too’ and I went ‘well yeah, okay’, and he starts with the whole ‘oh you’re a snow queen’ and this and that, and I was like ‘well I was sure good enough for you when we had it’ and then he said ‘y’all are the ones who are bringing AIDS to the black community’”. This mentality of AIDS being a gay white man’s disease, however, abruptly comes to an end as the realities fo HIV/AIDS beame more clear, being that black people were disproportionately getting and dying from the disease. Wright says, “But then of course it narrowed down to gay black men were like leading the numbers, so I think that’s what made it so important that I started doing what I was doing, and even though I was working for, you know, a university hospital at the time, when I started the AAOGC I knew that the focus, there needed to be a focus on black gay men”. This created Wright’s passion, and his reason for creating the AAOGC: Wright wanted to actively help the black gay men that were being disproportionately killed from this largely ignored disease.

It’s important to point out the overwhelming sentiment of this interview, being that of gratefulness. Wright makes it clear that he is not only grateful to be doing what he’s doing, but that he’s grateful to be alive in the first place. Closing off his interview with us, Wright said “I really never thought I was gonna live to be 66 years old, I swear to god. I thought, I’m gonna be gone by 30, 35. And then when HIV happened, I thought “ah man this is it”. But you just can’t let your guard down, you know, live your life and just be happy”. Wright has an incredibly inspiring outlook on life, one that many of us are never able to reach, being that everyday is a blessing and that he will do everything he can while he’s alive. Further than that, Wright emphasized that all he wants to do is live his life and be of help. Speaking on a phenomenon known as “HIV Remorse”, and the specifically gay men who feel guilty for not having had it, Wright says, “God let me stay alive so that I can do what I can do, you know what I mean? Maybe it’s just to hire, to be there to have an agency to hire people, queer people, trans people, and all so that they can get a job. So, I don’t know what my purpose in life is, but, you know, I just move forward, you know”. Wright’s words continue to inspire, and he couples that with incredibly impactful and charitable work. He truly serves for the good of the world, something that is awe-inspiring to see.

We must, at this point, tell everyone to go read the transcript of this interview. The transcript is posted in tandem with this article, and includes many other stories, anecdotes and lessons that we could not fit into this article. This interview was incredibly fun to hold, but also impactful on our own moral character and outlook on the world. The transcript is thus a must-read, and we hope everyone enjoys it.

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