Ron Simmons Kept a Light On: March 2, 1950 – May 28, 2020
Author: Steven G. Fullwood
June 4, 2020
Ron Simmons’ exceptional life in activism touches on the black LGBTQ literary, visual and HIV/AIDS prevention and cultural advocacy from the early 1970s until he passed on May 28, 2020. I had the privilege of knowing Ron for years, as did many others. Consider this memorial a love letter honoring the life and work of Ron Simmons.
Ron Simmons didn’t submit an essay to In the Life, Joseph Beam’s groundbreaking anthology because at the time he was pursuing his doctorate at Howard University.
“[I] feared that coming out as openly gay would jeopardize my obtaining the doctorate. Doctoral degrees can be very political. Your receiving the degree can be very subjective in terms of your dissertation committee,” Simmons told me in 2014. “I wasn’t willing to take the chance.”
But within a few years, everything would change. By 1989, Dr. Simmons came out as gay in preparation of the national PBS broadcast of Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’ seminal documentary on black gay life. Simmons’ served a field producer, photographer and cast member of the award-winning documentary. It is his signature photo of Essex Hemphill in halo embracing Riggs, which he says was “taken in my living room using a sheet with painted graphics that Essex had used as a backdrop in one of his performances.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, to working class parents, Ron lived in Bronzeville in the Van Dyke housing project. As a preteen, he along with other black students were bussed to integrate Montauk Junior High. In 1968, he graduated from Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School. Simmons’ political sensibilities were roused while in college at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNYA), where he received his B.A. in Afro-American Studies (1972) and M.A. in African History (1978), and M.S. in Educational Communications (1979).
In 1972, Simmons served as the editor-in-chief of SUNYA’s undergraduate yearbook, “Torch 1972,” which, for its time, contained controversial issues and images dealing with homosexuality and the Vietnam War. The yearbook was denounced on the floor of the New York State Senate.
By the time Simmons received his Ph.D. in Mass Communications from Howard University in 1987, he was an assistant professor at the university where he taught courses in mass communication, history and theory, radio and television production, still photography, black film and research methods until 1992.
“He set my world on fire,” said Jeffrey Q. McCune, associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and author of Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing (2014). He was the first black gay man I would know with a PhD. Activist, scholar, HIV/AIDS shaman, fierce ancestor of Black Gay Everything.”
Simmons had also become part of a cadre of black LGBTQ artists and activists who laid the foundation for what’s considered the black LGBTQ renaissance that was developing in the late 1970s through the 1990s.
“I was fortunate to be accepted into a clique of talented black artists who were gay and lesbian, such as Essex Hemphill, Gate Tate, Gideon Ferebee, Chris Prince, Wayson Jones, Chi Hughes, who were writers, poets, and performers; Michael Oby, the singer/songwriter; Michelle Parkerson, the writer, filmmaker and performer; and Sidney Brinkley, editor, writer and publisher of Blacklight magazine among others.”
Throughout this time, Simmons was active in a number of pioneering progressive black LGBT organizations including the National Coalition of Black Gays and the DC Coalition of Black Lesbian and Gay Men.
At Blacklight, Ron served as the staff photographer for the magazine taking hundreds of photographs of political marches, pride celebrations, conferences, parties and other events in DC and elsewhere focusing on black LGBTQ life and culture. Today, many of those photographs are housed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
“Ron Simmons was incredibly gracious and giving,” said Aaron Bryant, Museum Curator at NMAAHC. “In both his words and his actions, Ron made it clear that communities working together to help make life better for each of us was central to his values. We see this in his life’s work as an activist and photographer.”
Two NMAAHC web-pages debuted this past weekend to celebrate black LGBTQ+ resources at the museum. “Both sites feature objects donated by Dr. Simmons. I wish he were here to see the major impact his donation has made on how the Smithsonian shares and tells stories, both nationally and globally.”
Simmons’ writings were also foundational in helping to build a black gay aesthetic. Of his best-known work, “Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Black Gay Intellectuals,” was featured in the groundbreaking anthology, Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men in 1991. Other published works include, “Sexuality, Television and Death: A Black Gay Dialogue on Malcolm X” (Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, 1992); and “Baraka’s Dilemma: To Be or Not To Be,” (Black Men on Race, Gender and Sexuality, 1999); “The Voice” (For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough, 2012); and “Joe, Essex, Marlon, and Me” (Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call, 2014). Lesser known but significant is “Faggotales,” arguably the first column written by Simmons specifically from a black gay male perspective for the SUNYA school newspaper in 1973.
Many people came to know Simmons through his work as executive director of Us Helping Us (UHU), an experienced private, non-profit, non-partisan organization with the mission to improve the health and well-being of Black gay men living with AIDS. Under Ron’s leadership, UHU became the first Black gay AIDS organization in the United States to purchase and renovate a building for its headquarters and service facility in DC.
Bryan E. Glover, deputy director of grants and programs at the Bronx Council on the Arts, worked with Simmons at UHU in 1990s, remembers Simmons created a space for building community and joy.
“Ron approached his work with a sense of urgency, dedication and passion exhibited by those who are living their calling. He was completely comfortable with who he was and what he was doing,” Glover said. “This made it easier for others to bring their complete selves into the space, and also facilitated much laughter and fun at the office. As I reflect back, I realize that this was one of the early examples for me that shattered the common misconception that joy is incompatible with seriousness.”
In 2016, Simmons retired as the President/CEO of UHU, and started his own company, Ron Simmons Consulting, LLC, in 2017. In 2018, he developed the Bodemé workshop, a sexual health intervention for young Black gay men, ages 16 to 29.
“Ron Simmons [is] a towering figure in African American history. Through UHU he made HIV-AIDS legible to Black men who were not in relation with white gay male politics and community, and who were justifiably skeptical of traditional medical institutions,” said historian Kwame Holmes. “He was part of a generation of Black Same Gender Loving (SGL) nationalists who invented themselves as a community and public health constituency with unique needs. And devoted his life to serving them. Simmons saved countless lives. When I interviewed him, he checked my academic ego and quickly got me together on his community’s history. I wish I had spent more time with him.”
Over the years Simmons’ served on several committees and boards including the HIV Prevention Community Planning Committee, the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS, and the District of Columbia Medical Board, and the Metropolitan Washington regional HIV Health Services Planning Council. His honors include the Life Time Achievement Award from the Black Gay Research Group; the Harvey Milk Alumni Award from the State University of New York at Albany; and the Heroes in the Struggle Award from the Black AIDS Institute. He has been inducted into the National AIDS Education and Services for Minorities’ Black Gay Men Hall of Fame and selected by POZ magazine as one of the POZ 100 most influential AIDS activists in the United States.
“I wrote a feature story about Ron a few years ago, said Washington, D.C., freelance journalist Candace Y.A. Montague. “I had known him for a long time but never pitched a story on just him. I went to his gorgeous home for the interview. Thought I’d be there for an hour and then out. I was there for four hours… his childhood in NY, his college years, his time at Howard University, HIV & AIDS, racial discrimination among gay and bi men and the start of UHU. It was the best interview I ever conducted (well, really he conducted).”
Last year, Simmons served on the International Steering Committee of the AIDS conference for African nations, ICASA 2019.
His loss is doubly difficult in this time of the coronavirus pandemic. Friends and colleagues reflected on his wide-ranging and reaching legacy.
“I met [Ron] 36 years ago when I was the precocious youthy fag at the mic at the National Alliance of Black Journalists conference, [He is] the reason I met Essex Hemphill and Ray Melrose, and most people I know in DC, who took me to the Enik Alley Coffeehouse,” said poet and activist Colin Robinson. “His legacy is so large I don’t want to start listing. And Covid-19 makes it feels like 1984 all over again when enormous deaths become so small because there is no space to grieve them.”
“One of the saddest things about losing him now (not that any other time would be easier) is that because of Covid-19 we will not be able to come from all corners of the earth to D.C. for a celebration of life for him, to cry and laugh together,” said Glover in a recent Facebook post. “To embrace as we share our grief.”
“He set the standard for a holistic treatment of our people, said Donna Payne-Hardy, lesbian civil rights leader, “I adored Ron because he was always faithful and steadfast to the cause. Always thinking ahead! Now he’s gone. He has given us everything…love, friendship, leadership, and commitment to our people. Take up your wings and go rest well.”
“I never spent a moment with Ron without learning something, or being motivated to change a condition, even if the change was within me,” Craig Washington, owner and founder at Innervisions. “Ron was honest, loyal, wise and courageous and funny as hell. I looked to him as a model of how to move in the world with integrity and grace.”
Note: There’s so much more to say about Ron Simmons and his work. We’re fortunate that he donated his archives to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian Museums so that his legacy would be preserved.
Ron Simmons Papers, 1972-2006. Sc MG 619. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
Ron Simmons. Short biography. D.C. Center for AIDS Research.
Riley, John. “The Calling: Ron Simmons on Us Helping Us and Twenty-Five Years of Activism.” MetroWeekly. December 1, 2016.
Boykin, Keith. “Remembering My Mentor, Black Gay Activist and Community Pillar Dr. Ron Simmons.” The Grio. June 2, 2020.
Montague, Candace Y.A. “Ron Simmons: Advocate.” A&U. December 19, 2016
Photo: Facebook via Poz