Phill Wilson: From AIDS to Activist

"We must remember our past in order to protect our future."

Early Life

Phill Wilson was born in Chicago, IL in 1956 on April 22. Phill came out as gay in 1980. Initially engaged to his college school sweetheart, he came out once he met a man named Chris Brownlie. Within a month of meeting Brownlie, Wilson broke things off with his fiancé and moved in with him. He says it was love at first sight

AIDS Epidemic

In 1981, Wilson’s doctor discovered he had swollen lymph nodes. It was his first introduction to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many of his friends were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and dying. He stated that he would go out with them to clubs and the following weeks they would disappear. Many of them would say they had gone “home” to die. 

In 1986 Chris became sick and they both assumed that Wilson had contracted the virus as well. Phill’s diagnosis was confirmed in 1987, and then they went on to live the next two years ‘minute by minute’ trying not to die. By 1989, however, Chris had died in Wilson’s arms. Things were catastrophic for Wilson and he was never able to fully grieve the death of the love of his life. 

In 1996, Wilson contracted pneumocystis pneumonia and cryptococcus meningitis at the same time. His doctors gave him 24 hours to live, however, something miraculous happened and the doctors started him on protease inhibitors that had been approved a few months earlier. As one of the first to receive this cocktail, his HIV became manageable, rather than deadly.


Wilson first entered HIV/AIDS activism in 1983 when he read the poem “Where will you be when they come?” at a candlelight vigil for AIDS victims, which he helped organize. After the vigil in 1983, Wilson began work as the Director of Policy and Planning for the AIDS Project in Los Angeles. He also became the AIDS Coordinator for Los Angeles. 

From 1990 to 1995, Wilson served as the co-chair of the Los Angeles HIV Health Commission. He set a goal to end each day as exhausted as possible so he was too tired to dream or think, and it continued until 1996. In 1996, his HIV became too immobilizing and he had to take a break from his work. 

In 1999, he went back to work and founded the Black AIDS Institute. He was terrified that Black communities were being left behind in the fight against AIDS. There was not enough information about prevention and treatment being given to Black communities. He used the Black AIDS Institute as a space that looked at the disease through a Black lens and focused squarely on Black people-- space where they could feel like they mattered. 


Wilson was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, becoming the co-chair of the disparities subcommittee. He served as a World AIDS Summit delegate and he worked with other Black AIDS activists to urge the CDC to provide additional funding to black communities eager to educate and mobilize their community around HIV/AIDS issues. 

As of 2016, he has been inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, won the 2001 Leadership for Changing the World Award, the 2004 Discovery Health Channel Medical Honor, the Delta Spirit Award from Delta Sigma Theta, and the GLAD Legal Advocates & Defenders Spirit of Justice Award. In 2005 he was named one of the Black History Makers in the Making by BET.

Written by: Zach Hover