Dennis deLeon

Dennis deLeon, President of the Latino Commission on AIDS and well-known AIDS activist, died on Monday, December 14, at age 61.

“Dennis will be greatly missed by me and the rest of the AIDS community. He was a tremendous person and an absolutely fearless champion of people living with HIV/AIDS,” says Paul A. Kawata, Executive Director of the National Minority AIDS Council. “He taught an entire generation of AIDS leaders the importance of speaking truth to power, whether in a small city or on Capitol Hill.”

deLeon, a lawyer by trade, learned he was HIV positive in 1986. He disclosed his HIV status in a 1993 New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “My Hopes, My Fears, My Disease.” Then head of the New York City Commission of Human Rights, deLeon’s powerful words hinted at the AIDS advocate he was to become: “I have overseen hundreds of cases in which H.I.V.-positive New Yorkers and their families have been shunned by colleagues and employers. Often, the person is transferred into a meaningless position, passed over for advancement or fired. Such treatment is often made to appear superficially legitimate but is frequently revealed through investigation to be based on discrimination. Why should I put up with this?”

The piece cemented deLeon, one of the first city officials to announce that he was HIV positive, as a major figure in the AIDS community. After a brief stint in private practice a year later, he returned to the public sector – this time to run the Latino Commission on AIDS (LCOA).

deLeon built LCOA from a two person operation into a major national AIDS organization addressing the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS among Latinos through advocacy and education programs. He helped lead the call for a National Latino AIDS Agenda, and in 2007, joined NMAC and seven other national minority AIDS organizations to work collectively as the National People of Color HIV/AIDS Working Group (POC). Together, the POC ensures that federal HIV- and health-related policies and the upcoming national HIV/AIDS strategy address the needs of underserved communities – and communities of color in particular – which have been hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic since it began.

“I knew Dennis for almost 20 years and served with him under the Dinkins Administration in New York City. He fought tirelessly for human rights, particularly for minorities,” says Ravinia Hayes-Cozier, NMAC’s Director of Government Relations and Public Policy and one of the forces behind the POC effort.

“He participated in every aspect of POC – including our Hill visits last year. You could tell walking around the halls was tiring him; but he wouldn’t give up. Right to the end, Dennis’ dedication to upholding the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and giving voice to the disproportionate impact of HIV in the Latino community never faltered.”

Dr. Jorge Delgado, NMAC’s Assistant Director of Government Relations and Public Policy and a friend of deLeon says, “Dennis’ passion was driven by those he represented – people and families living with and impacted by HIV. He understood that lives – the future of our communities – were at stake.

“His outspokenness and tenacity were one of a kind – and absolutely irreplaceable.”

(credits: National Minority AIDS Council)