Health has always been an important facet of gay life. But in the decades since the AIDS crisis, our community gained a new level of awareness. Being healthy wasn’t just about your HIV status or your gym schedule. Several activists and prominent public figures in the community championed causes or movements tied to holistic wellness. In addition to physical health, several critical leaders have pushed for progress with mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being. Some have even focused on social and environmental health—necessary extensions of wellness. Though there’s no shortage of pioneers who’ve contributed to the long-term health of gay men, there are a few who lead the pack.
Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Lawrence D. Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, and Edmund White – Founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC)
Little was known about AIDS back in January 1982. The mysterious illness didn’t have a name, and it was disproportionately affecting gay men. The founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis knew they couldn’t wait for the government to wake up and do something. GMHC quickly became the backbone of the community, supported entirely by volunteers.
The organization expanded to offer legal aid, crisis counseling, and social work. It was the single most important health organization for gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis. And today, GMHC still has a massive presence in our community. In 2016 alone, GMHC helped 12,665 people, served over 85,000 meals, and delivered pantry bags to almost 35,000. Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Lawrence D. Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, and Edmund White were just trying to save their friends and family in 1982. 35 years later, they’ve helped save an entire community.
Harry Hay – Founder of the Radical Faeries
Harry Hay is the most peculiar of the pioneers on this list. He’s credited with leading the Gay Liberation movement. He created the Mattachine Society, a major gay support group that first surfaced in the 1950s. But his reputation as an activist was tarnished by his radical political beliefs.
He was a Communist. And Communists were anti-gay. If you don’t dig any deeper, his history in the community seems conflicted at best. But it’s his spiritual contributions that have had the greatest impact. In 1979, he founded the Radical Faeries along with Mitch Walker, John Burnside, and Don Kilhefner. The collective offered an alternative to mainstream gay culture by exploring the gay spirit and railing against “social emptiness”. Hay passed in 1990, but the Radical Faeries live on today with several sanctuaries all over the world.
Bob Bergeron – Groundbreaking Therapist
Bob Bergeron is an accidental pioneer. In a sense, his everyday work was revolutionary. He was a therapist who’d focused solely on gay men’s health. He tailored his practice to combat anxiety and coping with HIV diagnoses. Bergeron was a thriving motivational speaker who traveled the country to visit gay and lesbian centers and deliver messages of empowerment.
Though the most interesting aspect of his work was his focus on aging. He authored a self-help guide titled, “The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond”. He dared to focus on a part of gay life that no person or publication seemed interested in covering. However, he took his own life in 2012—a move that would seem to discredit his life’s work. But his untimely death didn’t erase his achievements. Quite the contrary, it amplified them and drove home the importance of mental health in the gay community for all-young and old.
Dan Savage – Founder of It Gets Better
LGBTQ youth are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as their straight counterparts. The battle to save young lives seemed hopeless until author and activist Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better project. It started with one YouTube video.
Savage and his partner Terry Miller shared their story in the hopes that young, bullied gay teens would find hope in a brighter future. That video was seen by millions and expanded to more than 50,000 user-generated clips, including many by prominent celebrities and politicians like Barack Obama, Adam Lambert, and Ellen DeGeneres. It Gets Better has gone on to raise money for LGBTQ youth causes and drastically increase community visibility. It’s a staple of the gay mental health movement now. But it all started with Savage’s simple mission.
Joseph Huff-Hannon – Founder of Queers for the Climate
You may not recognize Joseph Huff-Hannon’s name but you’ve probably read his work. He’s a veteran writer whose bylines have appeared in The Guardian and Rolling Stone. But his greatest accomplishment has less to do with his word play and more to do with his passion. He founded Queers for the Climate in 2014 as a secondary movement to generate momentum for the People’s Climate March. But he also drove home the point that the fight for gay rights would be futile without an Earth to fight on.
He believes our community is specially equipped to lead the charge because we’ve fronted “one of the most successful civil rights movements in the last few decades.” He also believes that global warming will negatively affect the smaller communities that many LGBTQ people move to in their quest to escape prejudice. His 2014 YouTube video about saving Fire Island made waves. Huff-Hannon is the first major gay activist to help connect the dots between holistic wellness and Mother Earth.
Harvey Milk – First Openly Gay Politician in California
Social acceptance is a major component of gay holistic wellness. Harvey Milk knew that, and he also knew that we needed to fight from the inside. He became California’s first openly gay politician elected to office in 1977. As San Francisco city supervisor, he passed a landmark gay rights ordinance for the city. But his life was cut short when he was gunned down by fellow city supervisor Dan White in 1978.
He was only in office for 11 months, but his legacy has lived on for decades. When we look at the record number of elected gay officials in America, his impact is present in a big way.
RuPaul – Creator, RuPaul’s Drag Race
RuPaul’s signature saying is all about self-acceptance: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gon’ love somebody else”. And in turn, he’s built an empire around that very concept. RuPaul rose to fame in 1993 after releasing the single, “Supermodel (You Better Work)”.
Over the next two decades, he served as a powerful community ambassador, pushing drag to the mainstream, acting, and hosting a variety of TV shows. But his biggest mark on the community has been RuPaul’s Drag Race. Nine seasons in, the drag reality competition has transcended the gay community and found a home on VH1. But more than an entertaining competition, the show has preached acceptance and self-love. Now, that message is turning into a powerful tool of visibility.