POZ Exclusives : Off the Top of His Head - by James Wortman

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February 24, 2010

Off the Top of His Head

by James Wortman

Housing Works president and CEO Charles King lopped off his trademark ponytail in a charity event to benefit HIV-positive victims of the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. The longtime HIV activist speaks with POZ about his organization’s long-term commitment to Haiti and why it’s so important for the HIV community to lend a hand during the rebuilding process.

Charles King prior to his haircut for Haiti
When you first meet Charles King, president and CEO of New York City–based AIDS service organization Housing Works, the first thing you’re likely to notice about him is his 14-inch ponytail, which hangs about midway down his back. King, now 55, began growing his trademark tail at Yale Law School in 1986. It was a symbol—a reminder—that he would never stray from his dedication to HIV/AIDS advocacy work.

And he certainly hasn’t. Housing Works, which he cofounded with his late partner Keith D. Cylar, now ranks among the largest grassroots HIV/AIDS organizations in the United States. And whether King—who was diagnosed with HIV in 2002—is delivering the first keynote address to the White House on the link between HIV and homelessness or whether he’s getting arrested in a civil disobedience action outside New York City’s Gracie Manor, his ponytail visually underscores the fact that King has made few compromises when it comes to speaking out and working on behalf of those hardest hit by HIV/AIDS. Or, at least, it did.

In response to the devastating January 12 earthquake in Haiti, which has reportedly killed as many as 300,000 people in Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions, King announced he would cut off his signature ponytail in a charity auction to raise money to benefit Haitian AIDS service organizations affected by the quake. All proceeds from the February 23 auction, dubbed “Shear Madness,” were donated to Housing Works’ Keith D. Cylar Activist Fund, which will funnel the money to Haiti relief efforts.

The highest bidder for the chance to lop off King’s famous locks? None other than evangelical megachurch leader Rick Warren, who, in spite of his own HIV/AIDS relief efforts alongside his wife, Kay, is often criticized for his stance on homosexuality. King is one of those critics.

“I challenge Rick and his wife over theology,” King, an ordained Baptist minister, wrote on his blog. “I think Rick likes going toe-to-toe with a gay activist who knows his Bible.”

But in spite of their combative relationship over the role of churches in addressing HIV/AIDS—including a public confrontation at the 2006 International AIDS Conference in Toronto—the two now debate on friendlier terms. Warren immediately started off the bidding at $1,000 and won, although he did not attend the cutting ceremony.

Including Warren’s donation, Shear Madness raised $11,000 as King’s friends, colleagues and fellow activists bid on the opportunity to personally cut off his ponytail as well as the style of his new ’do. The look that won out? The mullet, a style commonly described as “business in the front, party in the back.”
Diaspora Community Services executive director Carine Jocelyn bid $950 for the honor of cutting King's ponytail.
In a February 24 blog post reflecting on Shear Madness, King wrote, “The truth is, I would cut off my ponytail a dozen times or more for my friends in Haiti.”

Watch video from the event:

We at POZ commend this creative fund-raiser, but King’s commitment to Haiti extends far beyond the here (or is it hair?) and now. We spoke with the Housing Works head honcho about his longstanding relationship with the Caribbean country and the obstacles that lie ahead in helping Haitians living with and affected by HIV.

How did your relationship with Haiti begin?

King, sporting his new mullet
Two years ago this coming April, we gave Esther Boucicault our International Keith Cylar AIDS Activist Award. We had actually become aware of Esther through POZ when you guys did a story on her for having been the first Haitian to come out publicly in the media about her HIV status (read “The Brave Lady of Haiti”). Last October, I went down [to Haiti] to visit her organization and program [Fondation Esther Boucicault Stanislas, or FEBS] in St. Marc, and then, based on my recommendation, the selection committee decided to present her with the award.

During the visit, I had asked her about men who have sex with men [MSM] and the rates of [HIV] transmission, and she got very embarrassed and denied that that happened in St. Marc. She remarked that as something that might happen in the capital, Port-au-Prince, but not there. So when she came up to the United States for the awards ceremony that April, two things happened. First of all, she challenged me, saying that, sure, the $10,000 grant—which was the prize for the award—was nice, but she really needed and wanted an ongoing relationship that was supportive to what she was trying to develop there. And I challenged her that she needed to have a program that addressed MSM. So we each took up the other’s challenge and that’s what got us involved. On World AIDS Day the year before last, I actually marched with the first group of gay men to openly march in the streets of Haiti. And this year I went and spoke at a human rights conference that was sponsored by PHAP+, which is the national association of people living with HIV/AIDS in Haiti.

You flew down to Haiti immediately after the quake with medicine and other relief supplies in tow. What were some of your first impressions?

Well, we actually touched down in Santo Domingo, [Dominican Republic,] which is a whole day’s drive away. We had rented a truck and filled it with food. The truck was only going 40 kilometers an hour, which meant that we actually pulled over on the Dominican side of the island to catch a few hours of sleep and then got up at 3 in the morning and made our way to the [Haitian] border.

The amazing thing was that because normal traffic was shut down, it was actually a very bucolic kind of scene until you got into Port-au-Prince itself and you could see the damage. At the time, the rubble hadn’t even been cleared from the roads, and I think the most striking thing was bodies littering the streets and people still desperately trying to recover folks. In one building, you would have a rescue squad from some foreign country with all of their high-tech equipment, and in the next building there would be a lone man with a sledgehammer.

Housing Works, Aid for AIDS, the M·A·C AIDS Fund and several other AIDS organizations responded very quickly following the quake. Why is it so important that the HIV community in the United States respond and help not only people living with HIV in Haiti but everyone recovering there?

I think there are two things. There is an HIV-specific response that is imperative. Housing Works has, probably since 1997, had a saying that the AIDS crisis isn’t over until it’s over for everyone. And the truth of the matter is when something like this occurs, marginalized people—whether it’s Katrina or Port-au-Prince—are going to get the short end of the stick almost every time. One of the largest AIDS clinics in Port-au-Prince was completely pancaked, which tells you that not only was the building destroyed but every single person that was in that building at 5:14 that afternoon died. People are without their meds, people are injured. If we consider that there is an AIDS movement, an AIDS community, then we have an obligation to take care of each other—it’s that simple.

But the larger thing is that AIDS is an epidemic of oppression. Social and economic injustice are what fuel the AIDS epidemic around the world, so I think the HIV/AIDS community ought to be particularly sensitive to a tragedy like this and its impact on people. I don’t think people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States can look at what’s happening just a few hours flight from our shore and turn our backs on that any more than we could or should turn our backs on what happened in New Orleans just a few years ago.

What are some of the obstacles you have faced in Haiti thus far?

We have been very frustrated at trying to get around and claiming things at the Port-au-Prince airport. Things just get lifted, goods just disappear. Another big frustration has been knowing that there are doctors at the humanitarian village at the airport with no place to go, basically being told that if you leave the grounds here then you are no longer protected. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten from potential volunteers wanting to know if it’s safe. [The Housing Works team and I] are living with the people, and we are sleeping with the people. We are not in a compound that’s guarded by the U.N. or the U.S. military, and we haven’t experienced anything but welcome. [But] medical people have been in many cases reluctant to leave the hospital or the airport to get to where their help is needed.

The other thing that we saw, frankly, that was rather disturbing, was medical personnel running around like cowboys doing what would be considered, in any other situation, medical malpractice. For example, I wrote in my blog about a woman that showed up at the clinic with a cast on her leg and an X-ray. Only the X-ray had been done after the cast had been put on, and the broken bone had never been set.

What challenges lie ahead?

First of all there are the very short-term challenges. I would say probably in any disaster setting the organizing is chaotic, but what is going on in Haiti right now is absolutely disgraceful. The kind of collaboration that you want to see from a lot of the bigger players is not happening and, consequently, things are not trickling down.

The government isn’t the most functional, and it is not clear who from the international community is in charge and coordinating things. But, at the end of the day, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, [and] it’s been chaotically managed for a good while now, so rebuilding is going to be an enormous challenge. And frankly, I think the worst thing that can happen is to not take into account and consideration the perspectives of Haitian people who, in the midst of chaos, have already been serving for their own communities. So I think if someone comes up with an international plan saying “this is how we’re going to fix Haiti,” it’s going to be doomed to fail unless civil society in Haiti is very much involved in helping shape and direct the plan.

Photo credit: Jennifer Morton/POZ

Search: Charles King, Housing Works, Diaspora Community Services, Carine Jocelyn, Haiti, Rick Warren, Shear Madness, earthquake, Aid for AIDS, MAC AIDS Fund

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