ABilly S. Jones-Hennin, 80, has watched views on everything from sexuality to HIV/AIDS evolve during the decades he has been an activist in the LGBTQ+ community. A bisexual+ man in a 45-year interracial relationship, Jones-Hennin was a founding member of the Gay Married Men Association in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the D.C. Coalition of Black Gays. Now a grandfather who splits his time between Washington and Quintana Roo, Mexico, Jones-Hennin’s memories of living through the height of the AIDS crisis and of the friends he lost remain vivid.
This is his story.
ABilly S. Jones-Hennin: My capacity for loving is not locked into a specific gender. It’s the individual that I’m attracted to. Gender comes with that individual and that’s how I’ve identified myself for several decades now. I’m a child of the ’40s, so the most embracing term at that time was homosexual. Otherwise, you’d be called a sissy or a punk or a faggot. Derogatory terms. The terms have evolved, and I believe they are still evolving in how people identify themselves.
HIV/AIDS: A timeline
1981: The CDC reports cases of a rare lung infection in five previously healthy gay men in Los Angles. Simultaneously, a cluster of rare and aggressive cancers is reported in the gay population in New York and California. In the coming months, these illnesses would be connected to the same disease: AIDS.
1982: The CDC defines AIDS as a disease.
1984: Scientists discover and diagnose HIV as the virus that causes AIDS.
1985: The FDA approves the first blood test to detect HIV.
1987: Activist Cleve Jones creates the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Each panel, representing a grave, is 3 by 6 feet. The quilt, containing 1,920 panels, is displayed in Washington, D.C., to call attention to AIDS deaths.
1987: The FDA approves AZT as the first antiretroviral drug for treating AIDS, but the high cost of the medication is prohibitive for many.
1988: The first World AIDS Day is observed.
1992: AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for U.S. men ages 25 to 44. Two years later, AIDS is the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44.
2012: The FDA approves pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily dose of two antiretrovirals to prevent HIV infection.
2019: Doctors say they have cured a patient of HIV infection, 12 years after a first patient appeared to have been cured. Scientists had struggled to replicate that success.
March 2022: Following the quick development and approval of COVID-19 vaccines, three trials of mRNA HIV vaccines begin.
I knew early on that I was attracted to boys as well as girls and then later to men as well as women, but did not have the language for it. I slowly identified myself as gay, but calling myself gay didn’t totally fit me. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to meet several bisexual activists and came to awareness and acceptance of myself as bisexual. I currently identify as bisexual plus and as queer. Five years from now, I may say something else. It’s evolving.
When I did come out and identified myself as gay, I was married, living with my wife. When we separated, I had joint custody of our three kids. My kids were always with me, even then. They’d go to all sorts of LGBTQ events. I was semi-closeted and semi-open. It was a time when if you identified yourself as bisexual, you’d be ostracized by the lesbian and gay community. You remained closeted about it. You didn’t openly say, “I’m bisexual.” If you did, people would accuse you of passing or be told it’s just a phase, you’ll get through it. People thought it was a transition, moving from being straight to being gay. Or that you were just confused. I am fortunate now to live in a period when younger and younger individuals are coming out and are comfortable finding themselves openly as bisexual.
My husband and I will celebrate 45 years together this June. We were domestic partners in the [District of Columbia] when we could be and have now been married for eight years. The reason we got married was that we wanted to have the same benefits, the same opportunities that a heterosexual couple had.
When many gay and bisexual men were dying, we didn’t know what was going on. I was aware of GRID, gay-related immunodeficiency, which we now refer to as HIV/AIDs. The media portrayed it as an illness among gay men having sex with each other. It started out as, I refer to it as H’s — homosexuals, Haitians, heroin users, hemophiliacs and finally heterosexuals. It wasn’t just gay and bisexual men. Women were infected. The way the media presented HIV/AIDS, it came across as a white illness, instead of an illness that could affect anyone.
Everyone was afraid of it, including us in the gay and bisexual community. We didn’t understand it. The reality [then] was if you got infected you didn’t have long to live. If you were in the hospital, sometimes they’d just leave a tray by your door. If ministers agreed to do a funeral, they’d do a hell-and-damnation service about homosexuality. It was absolutely awful. Absolutely scary. We felt that there was no hope. If you got it, you were going to die. There were no tests at the time. And when there were, a lot of people were afraid to get tested because the attitude among men was, “If I get tested, what am I going to do about it?” We didn’t have the treatments we do now.
My husband and I got involved early. We began taking care of our friends. It was scary. We thought, When is our turn coming? By the grace of God and a miracle, neither of us got infected. We both worked with Whitman-Walker Health Clinic. We created programs for sex workers, both male and female; we created programs for injecting drug users. We were figuring it out as we went along. At the same time, we were sharing prevention and intervention messages.
We gave people whatever they needed. We did their grocery shopping, took them to doctors’ appointments. People often didn’t have any supportive family. We’d provide any support they needed: do laundry, do dishes, clean up the house, clean them up and just be there and be present. When they were at a stage of taking medication, we made sure that they did. Sometimes, they’d be on the verge of suicide, and we’d do as much intervention as we could. If that meant standing there all night with them to help them get through that aspect of mental health that they needed, that’s what we did. We did what needed to be done.
I have lost so many loved ones, young folks. I used to keep a notebook of the people who I lost. I was going to funerals several times a week. And sometimes more than one a day. It was very emotional, taxing on mental health to have to go from one funeral to another funeral. You had to find compassionate funeral homes that would be willing to provide funeral services. Not all funeral homes would take people who passed away from HIV. For those who had partners, being there for them after they’d lost their loved ones was tough. Those were grueling times.
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Things slowly but surely began to change, first of all with [the HIV drug treatment] AZT and then eventually with the cocktail of drugs that we now have.
Almost every day I think of someone who is not with us. I find myself constantly grieving the loss of these people. They were important people. Now people consider this a manageable illness, because there are medications that can help you live a normal life, live longer. We are seeing senior, aging persons who got through that era. And many who are HIV positive. Service providers are not afraid of it like they used to be. Some may be out of ignorance, but it’s not like it was in the beginning.
People tend to think that older folks are not sexual. People don’t think of older folks as using drugs. I’m here to tell you that older Americans are engaging in the same behavior that young Americans do. We should not assume that because people are older they are not having sex. We are. The thing is that we still need to remember that there is HIV/AIDS. We still need to protect ourselves.
Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a contributing writer who covers travel, food and LGBTQ+ culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine and WSJ Magazine.