For GMHC’s Fall Gala marking our 40th anniversary, former board chair Myron “Mickey” Sulzberger Rolfe will present a special award to Kelsey Louie, our former CEO, for his transformative work leading the agency from 2014 to 2021.
“GMHC is as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. That doesn’t happen by magic,” said Rolfe, who recruited Louie while serving as board chair.
Rolfe credited much of GMHC’s successful adaptation to the new challenges of the HIV epidemic to Louie, who last year became the CEO of The Door and Broome Street Academy, serving New York City youth. He said presenting the Judith Peabody Humanitarian Award to Louie will be particularly meaningful because GMHC similarly recognized him with this award in 2015.
Louie’s tenure catalyzed a period of growth and evolution that has continued with GMHC’s Interim CEO, Kishani Moreno, who has ably carried on the client-centered approach to providing supportive psychosocial services, as well as testing and linkage to healthcare, for people living with and affected by HIV.
Louie is one of a stellar and diverse array of Gala honorees who’ve contributed to ending the HIV epidemic, including our inspiring co-founder Dr. Larry Mass, renowned DJ and trans activist Honey Dijon, and ViiV Healthcare.
Dashaun Wesley of HBO Max’s Legendary will host this memorable evening on Sept. 22 at Cipriani 25 Broadway, which features a performance from The Iconic House of Miyake Mugler.
AIDS Fatigue & Changing Demographics
When Rolfe joined GMHC’s board in 2009, “people were suffering from AIDS fatigue,” he said, which made fundraising challenging, even as the need in New York City for HIV prevention, treatment and care services was, if anything, growing.
The advent of medications that effectively prevent and manage HIV—even though there is still no vaccine or cure—caused many to think the HIV/AIDS crisis was over. It wasn’t, but the demographics of those who were most affected had changed.
Those with sufficient resources could get prescriptions for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) or PEP (post exposure-prophylaxis), and so the HIV epidemic had concentrated among lower income Black and Latinx communities lacking the same access to health care.
Nearly half of New Yorkers newly diagnosed with HIV in 2020 live in neighborhoods of high poverty, according to the most recent data from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. What’s more, new HIV infections in New York City occur predominantly among Black and Latinx people, who are mostly young and LGBTQ. In 2020, fully 92% of cis- and transgender women newly diagnosed with HIV were Black or Latinx, as were 79% of cis- and transgender men.
These inequities for those newly diagnosed with HIV and their access to treatment persist across many communities, as we’ve further seen with the COVID-19 and now monkeypox (MPV) viruses.
By 2011, when Rolfe became GMHC’s board chair, what had started out as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 had grown into a much larger agency serving a far broader population.
The agency was at a crossroads. GMHC needed a strategy update to navigate its adaptation to the evolving realities of the HIV epidemic.
Rolfe’s first move was to diversify and professionalize the board from a group of “very kind, big-hearted people,” whom he said were mostly white, gay men in their 30s, to include women and people of color from a range of backgrounds.
As GMHC approached its 30th anniversary, the board crafted a new strategic plan and Rolfe started the search for a new CEO.
Louie, who’d previously served as the chief operating officer for Harlem United, clearly had the qualifications and administrative skills to run a large nonprofit HIV and AIDS services agency, holding both an MBA and a Master of Social Work degree, Rolfe said.
“What Kelsey uniquely brought to the table was a really palpable sense of respect for the clients,” Rolfe said. “Kelsey made GMHC a house of hope and care, a welcoming place for people to come and receive services as well as human kindness. That’s what GMHC is all about.”
It was that focus on “treating the person, not the patient,” that drew Rolfe, 66, to support GMHC in the early 1980s with his “then-limited resources of sweat equity and cash,” he said, after coming of age as an out gay man in the 1970s.
GMHC was founded in 1982, soon after the mysterious new disease that was killing gay men became known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. It was a dark time, because there were not yet effective medications to control HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“Either you had AIDS and you died from it, or you didn’t,” Rolfe said, adding that most people died. “By the time you were diagnosed, you were a goner.”
Then, like now, GMHC was for people affected by HIV or AIDS “who had nowhere else to turn,” he said. “GMHC was all about the people—and it was client-driven.”
When Louie became GMHC’s CEO in 2014, he re-started the agency’s signature Buddy Program, which provides peer-to-peer psychosocial support. He also expanded services for youth, as well as for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Louie developed essential new programs, such as supportive housing and comprehensive STI testing, and he expanded the focus on long-term HIV survivors, launching the Brenneis-Boger Hub for Long Term Survivors and leading the acquisition of ACRIA, a pioneer in HIV research, particularly around aging.
Under his leadership, GMHC was awarded the Gold Medal Prize for organizational excellence from the Non-Profit Coordinating Committee and New York Community Trust in 2017.
Once he signed Louie’s contract with GMHC, Rolfe said, he considered his mission accomplished and rotated off the board.
Now Rolfe has retired from his career as a theatrical design agent, but he’s still an active philanthropist.
“Even when the HIV and AIDS epidemic felt hopeless—which, thankfully, it isn’t any more—GMHC was first in the fight,” he said. “I still support GMHC, because I know that the fight is not over. I support them and love them in gratitude.”