Finding out that he was HIV positive in 1986 transformed Frank K. Godchaux into both an activist and philanthropist for the LGBTQ+ community.
“That was the start of everything. I was given 18 to 36 months to live–at 25 years old,” he said. “It was a crash course in what was going on. The church was against us, the government was against us–it was a really ugly time.”
The AIDS crisis “turned a lot of us into activists, especially people who’d been comfortable hiding–rich white guys,” Godchaux added. “It was survival. After your 10th funeral, you think, ‘Somebody has got to do something about this.’”
Influenced by those early years, Godchaux, now 59, gives his time and money exclusively to LGBTQ+ service organizations like GMHC that do grassroots outreach for people facing stigma from HIV/AIDS, or just for being LGBTQ+, saying that’s where he can do the most good.
“As gay people, we are just three to five percent of the population. I feel like I need to focus on LGBTQ+ organizations, because there are not that many of us out there,” he said.
He became a Presidents Council donor for GMHC last year. “They fill in really important gaps that a lot of other organizations can’t–addressing the needs of older people, food insecurity, housing and loneliness,” he said.
Besides GMHC, Godchaux supports the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ kids; SAGE, which helps older people living with HIV/AIDS who lack family support; the Stonewall Foundation; and the LGBTQ+ Center.
Godchaux grew up in Abbeville, LA, where his family has been in the rice business for over 100 years. He moved to New York in 2005 after living in Houston, New Orleans and other Southern cities.
In his first foray into activism, Godchaux in the late 1980s joined Body Positive, in Houston, which encouraged gay men to get tested for HIV to stop the epidemic’s spread.
“We’d stand in front of the entrances to bars in our Body Positive t-shirts and hand out Get Tested Now cards,” he remembered, adding that he came close to physical altercations with some anti-testers who feared the government would target people with HIV/AIDS.
“It was in the news back then about quarantining homosexuals,” Godchaux explained, so paranoia that the government “would round us all up,” wasn’t so crazy. “Religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart were saying that AIDS was God’s retribution for being gay,” he said.
Body Positive also erected a highway billboard with an image of two gay men and a phone number that read: “Get Tested Now, Ask Us How,” which Godchaux called “revolutionary for a Texas city in the late 80s.”
Although Godchaux’s T-cell count dropped after he contracted HIV, he turned out to be a non-progressor, meaning his symptoms didn’t worsen, and he survived. Others didn’t.
By the early 1990s, Godchaux had moved from Houston to New Orleans, where he supported an AIDS hospice, Project Lazarus, founded in 1985. “The big die-off was happening, so my focus became helping people die with dignity,” he said. “At the time, it was all we could do. Back then, it was just us fags dying, so no one gave a shit. There was no medical research, no funding–no rights or marriage or any of that.”
Godchaux said his activism and philanthropy have evolved with his journey as a gay man living with HIV: first, encouraging HIV testing, then helping those with AIDS die with dignity–and, later, fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, such as gay marriage.
“My giving is very personal,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be as involved if not for getting HIV in 1986. It gives me more empathy for other people’s suffering.”
One of Godchaux’s big concerns now in the LGBTQ+ community is complacency. “I don’t want us taking all that we’ve won for granted. Things can be taken away from us,” he said, bringing up the current targeting of trans people.
“It’s not necessarily linear that everything moves forward. The last four years should be a warning,” he added, referencing the Trump presidency and conservative Supreme Court.
“It’s important for gay people to take care of each other,” with both activism and money, he said. “You don’t have to be a rich guy to contribute. $50 can make a difference.”
“I see too many of the same faces at fundraising dinners,” he added. “A lot of people giving a little bit of money can make a difference.”
“No one will remember my name after reading this,” Godchaux said, “but I hope it encourages other people to give more to these organizations. That’s what it’s ultimately about.”