Thanks to Hank is the story of a liberation movement, a plague, an unsung hero, and an approach to gay activism that puts poor people first.
Meet Hank Wilson, the fiercest gay activist you never heard of. In San Francisco during the 1970s and 80s, Hank was the Johnny Appleseed of gay liberation. Everywhere he went new organizations sprang up. Many are still with us. The gay film festival he hosted at his Gay Community Center in 1977, with home movies projected on bed sheets, is now the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, with annual attendance over 60,000. The AIDS Candlelight vigil he put together, five years before the formation of ACTUP, is now the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, organized by 1,200 community organizations in 115 countries.
A kindergarten teacher, Hank took the lead in providing for the many young queers fleeing to San Francisco after being kicked out of their homes, He quit teaching to manage the Ambassador Hotel, a derelict 150-room residency hotel in the toughest part of town as a refuge for street kids and anyone else with nowhere to go. AIDS arrived, and Hank spent the next 20 years running the hotel as an unfunded hospice for the homeless and drug-addicted who were dying of AIDS. Many hundreds of poor people died in the Ambassador.
To survive a plague you need to laugh, so somewhere Hank found the time to start the first queer comedy club in San Francisco, where Whoopi Goldberg and Lea Delaria got their start.
Through it all, he maintained a modesty so extreme even his closest friends found it odd. He slept on the floor of a one-room roach-infested apartment and invited homeless people to sleep in his car.
Like the residents of his hotel, Hank contracted AIDS and died way too soon.
We talk so much about community these days, but what do we actually mean? Hank Wilson had a definition even his kindergarten students could understand: a community is something that takes care of its least privileged members. If this simple thing cannot be done, then you don’t have much in the way of community. This was Hank’s life project, his singular, profound gift to the queer community, and to the city of Saint Francis.