RIP – DENNIS deLEON


EXPIRED: 12/14/09 – Dennis deLeon, 61, fought for people with HIV-AIDS who couldn’t fight for themselves. He put up a grand fight.

He’d seen HIV-positive friends, neighbors and co-workers relegated to crap jobs at work, passed over for promotions or out-and-out fired. He recognized this as discrimination and he wasn’t going to stand for it. Why would he? He himself was HIV positive since 1986.

deLeon was NYC’s Human Rights commissioner under Mayor David Dinkins and, for 15 years, the president of the Latino Commission on AIDS. His partner of 32 years, Bruce Kiernan, said he finally died of heart failure, although with a heart as big as his, that hardly seems possible.

In his years with the Latino Commission, which followed his service in the Dinkins administration, deLeon built a fledgling New York-based effort into the nation’s leading organization battling the HIV/ AIDS epidemic in the Hispanic community. The coordinator of National Latino Awareness Day, the group now does work in 40 states and Puerto Rico.

Born in Los Angeles in 1948, deLeon graduated from Occidental College and got a law degree from Stanford in 1974. He served as a top official in the city’s Corporation Counsel office under Mayor Ed Koch, before becoming Dinkins’ deputy Manhattan borough president in 1988. After Dinkins became mayor in January 1990, deLeon became his human rights commissioner and the highest ranking out LGBT city official to date.

In 1993, deLeon, while serving as human rights commissioner, came out as HIV-positive in an op ed in the Times. Public disclosure of HIV status at that time was still relatively rare and up to that point, only Kiernan, deLeon’s mother, and the mayor were aware of his status. He wrote that he chose to go public only after years of years of indecision.

“When I contemplated disclosure,” he wrote, “I felt that my hope to continue contributing to society as a lawyer and human rights activist was threatened. Would I be evaluated on my merits if I sought to be a judge, a law professor, a law firm member, or a governmental appointee?”

During his tenure at the Latino Commission on AIDS, deLeon served as the Manhattan delegate to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which has investigatory oversight of allegations of police misconduct brought by the public, and served on the boards of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the New York City HIV/ AIDS Planning Council, which oversees disbursement of federal treatment dollars, and the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership, a nationwide coalition of service providers.

Earlier this year, deLeon stepped down as the Latino Commission’s president.

His successor, Guillermo Chacon, in a written statement after deLeon’s death, said, “It will be a challenge to pick up the mantle Dennis has left for us at the Commission. Dennis was a friend, a mentor, and an example of what a national leader should be. He is a testament to the human spirit and the power of perseverance. His work and his dedication to our community will not be forgotten.”

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