By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor
Boston – The Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast marked its 30th anniversary this past March at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum to once again recognize contributions made by lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals from communities of color in their fight against HIV/AIDS. The 2019 Bayard Rustin Award for Courage was presented to Gerald James, director of operations of the Boston Public Health Commission.
The breakfast commemorates Bayard Rustin, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. James has volunteered for its planning committee since 1999. He acknowledged his surprise when accepting this year’s award of the event’s namesake.
“Being a person who has HIV and relatively healthy, this is my opportunity to give back to help others,” James shared. “People who are HIV-positive need to take ownership and demand the care that they want. If you’re doing well, talk about it with people who may not be as educated about how they can be successful. They’ll be more apt to take a second look to better their health.”
James particularly strives to share his story with people in communities of color. He has experienced significant progress with medical treatment since his diagnosis.
“Some people in communities of color aren’t aware of the progress and not taking advantage of it,” he noted. “Look at the statistics: more people of color are getting infected; whereas, the infection rate is going down in the white community.”
During a past breakfast, James entertained with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC), which he joined in 1989. He founded the Boston Rainbow Gospel Choir in 1997 to provide music at community events for several years. In 2001, he appeared as a soloist for the Pride Gospel Brunch presented by Men of Color Against AIDS at the House of Blues located at the time in Cambridge.
Also in 2001, he soloed the gospel-style song “Celebrate” for a BGMC concert at New York City’s world-renowned Carnegie Hall. Included in the audience from his hometown of Brooklyn were his mother, godmother and best friend from elementary school, who’s straight.
“They’ve all known for a long time that I’m gay, but that night they were actually seeing me as an openly gay man singing with a gay chorus,” he relayed.
The breakfast was created by AIDS Action Committee (AAC). James had volunteered with AAC for several years and more recently collaborated with the nonprofit organization as a health professional.
Beginning in 2012, he worked in various capacities at Boston Medical Center, ultimately as manager of its outreach and peer programs. James continues advocating advice that he and his staff conveyed to patients.
“If people with HIV take their medication as prescribed, they can become medically adherent and undetectable, meaning the virus is still in the body but so insignificant that you can’t transmit it,” he explained. “People who are undetectable have the same life expectancy as a person who isn’t HIV-positive.”
Decades after receiving a bachelor’s degree with a triple major in 1983 from Tufts University, James began studying toward a master’s degree in 2015 at Boston University School of Public Health. To allow time for studies while working, he took a hiatus from BGMC.
The programs he managed at Boston Medical Center were funded by a five-year grant from the Department of Public Health. After its funding ended, James got hired as assistant director of operations for the Boston Public Health Commission.
He returned to BGMC in its 2017-2018 season and participated in its South African tour in June 2018. Concert ticket sales’ with cash donations totaled $38,000. BGMC donated the funds to South African organizations serving LGBT people and those living with HIV.
Upon returning home from the tour, James learned that his boss at the Boston Public Health Commission accepted another job. Soon afterward, James began his current position as its director of operations.
Among the breakfast’s supportive guests observing him receive the award were his mother and sister visiting from New York, and staff of the Boston Public Health Commission.
“It was a really nice moment having my family and work colleagues there for me,” he said.
James took charge of updating guests who expressed interest in volunteering for next year’s 31st annual breakfast.