BY EMELL DERRA ADOLPHUS
Like most gay men in Detroit during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, Cornelius Wilson feared how his sexuality would change the course of his future. Around him, the virus was extinguishing young lives at a rapid pace. But Wilson no longer could stifle living in his truth.
“Things were happening which were bringing this gay lifestyle more to light and in focus,” he remembers.
Wilson was in his mid-thirties at the time, afroed and handsome enough to have done “some modeling.” Opportunities to travel and meet other LGBT people helped him see that there were many different types of gay people, and he didn’t have to stereotype himself to fit in.
“It was basically a realization, if you will, after a series of experiences,” Wilson says. “When I came out, it was not a formal process by any means.”
He started with his mother.
“Her response was: ‘So, what? You’re still my son. I still love you. What do you want a medal?'” Wilson laughs about it now, wondering how he thought she would respond otherwise. His brothers matched his mother’s support. “Once (my mom) told me that, I’m like, I can care less than a damn what anybody else thinks.”
A supportive family was rare during the AIDS epidemic and a relief, Wilson explains. Young gay men were being turned away from their homes as quickly as they were diagnosed. For him, support was only half the battle. “There was still a fear because folks were dying left and right and the medications were assisting in that matter,” says Wilson. When he was diagnosed in 1987, he had been working with CHAG (Community Health Awareness Group) for several months, first as a volunteer then as an employee.
“During all of this time, I was unaware of my own positivity. But I kind of suspected something,” he says. While doing some volunteer counseling, he ran into a former lover who was recently diagnosed as HIV positive. “When we finally talked, he thought I’d be upset and blame him. But, as I explained to him, he may have been one of my first, but he definitely wasn’t my last. So, I wasn’t sure if I was infected through sexual contact or through the numerous needle sticks I endured during my tenure as a phlebotomist at the plasma donor center.”
As Wilson got more involved in HIV counseling, he noticed that most black men were on the receiving end of services and dying. “There were a lot of men who came in that I met that were found to be positive but were in relationships with women, either married or what have you,” he remembers. “It was those experiences and those foundations that helped strengthen my resolve for who I was.”
Wilson founded Men of Color Motivational Group to help better engage the black community about HIV awareness. His leadership didn’t go unnoticed among gay men. Soon he was recognized as a community organizer and respected as an activist.
“I don’t view myself as all that. I do what I do because it’s part of who I am and, in large part, because a lot of it was for me,” he says. “I needed to know that there were services out there that I may need. I needed to know that there were people out there that, if needed, I could connect with. So I did it for somewhat selfish reasons. But as I found that I didn’t need the services, there were people all around me that did and they benefitted.”
Last summer, Wilson was received a Lifetime Achievement Award from SAGE (services and advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender elders) Metro Detroit for his work bringing awareness to LGBT older adults in isolation.
In addition to his work with SAGE, Wilson serves as board member and finance committee co-chair for the Detroit planning body of the Southeast Michigan HIV/AIDS Council (SEMHAC). He is also the committee chairman for planning the annual SAGE Metro Detroit LGBTQ Older Adult Summit and the Hotter Than July LGBTQ Annual Gathering conference.
He has served as a project director for the supportive housing agency, Travelers Aid Society of Metropolitan Detroit (TASMD). He’s worked as a senior case manager at Target Population Services (TaPS, Inc.) for persons in recovery seeking recovery support services. And he’s been a program director for Guiding Light Sober Living, Inc., an agency established to provide for the special needs of housing and recovery management, as well as other supportive services, for men living with and/or at high risk of contracting HIV.
Social work doesn’t come without its challenges, explains Wilson. With so many organizations, overlapping causes and agendas, it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page. But Wilson’s natural-born willingness to speak his mind put him at the forefront.
“When some things did come up from the broader community, I challenged them. I took them head on,” he says. Still, he doesn’t view himself as any type of activist.
“Still don’t,” he says. “No. I am just another black man out here who happens to be gay who happens to be living his life a certain way. And I like helping people. That’s part of my passion. Helping myself is helping people. Helping people is helping myself.”
“Everything I do has a selfish aspect to it,” Wilson explains. “I get involved for dual reasons. The cause may be beneficial to what I may need at the time. But it’s also something that I like to do. Since I got involved with organizing, activism, whatever you want to call it, I enjoy it. It keeps the mind working. Has kept me busy.”
Now at 60, Wilson has taken on the challenges of getting older with the same matter-of-factness he brings to his work in the community.
“Once I learn what the deal is, then I find the resolve and the solution,” he says, about getting older and staying healthy. “It’s like, I got to get over it because I have a life to live.”
BY EMELL DERRA ADOLPHUS