Steve Arrington has been fighting for civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the rights of people living with HIV/AIDs for most of his life—not unlike his own hero, Bayard Rustin, the out-and-proud architect of the 1963 March on Washington. Arrington is quick to point out parallels between Rustin’s ultimate marginalization within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the marginalization of Black LGBTQ+ people in both the broader LGBTQ+ community and in Black communities.
“That battle that he fought about being gay and pushed in the back of the movement is pretty much what we felt being gay with HIV—pushed in the back of our communities, Black communities, and there’s a lot of pushback that we still have in that,” Arrington says. “We’re still in that battle. Even today, a lot of discrimination issues around being Black and gay are just overwhelming.”
Hometown Heroes come from all walks of life, live all over the country, and come from diverse backgrounds, working every day to make the world a better place for others – even if they aren’t making headlines for it.
But Arrington is not one to get overwhelmed. As the chief administrator of the Bayard Rustin LGBTQIA+ Resource Center in Akron, Ohio, and the co-founder and executive director of the Akron AIDS Collaborative, he remains focused on the fight and on pushing ahead.
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Arrington’s tenacity has made him somewhat infamous—“I get labeled as ‘trouble,’” he says—but it has also fueled his decades of community outreach and activism and earned him a nomination for LGBTQ Nation’s 2023 Hometown Hero.
In his nomination, Bayard Rustin LGBTQIA+ Resource Center staffer Ares Paige wrote that he has been inspired by Arrington’s heart and courage, as well as his belief that helping those in need is our duty as human beings. “With his vast wisdom and insight,” Paige writes, “I have been able to learn what it really means to serve one’s community and it has now become a permanent part of my purpose in life.”
Arrington says he gained his own sense of that purpose from his parents, both of whom were active in their community in the 60s and 70s. He pushed for civil rights as a teen, organizing a walk-out at his predominantly white high school in Massillon, Ohio, which succeeded in getting school administrators to introduce Black history classes in 1970. At Bowling Green State University, he helped start the first Black Student Union on campus and became its vice president.
After moving to Colorado in the 80s, Arrington had what he calls his “coming out party.”
“I was good and grown when I first saw two men dancing together,” he says. “In my little hometown there wasn’t no gay club. I got into my oats and went buck wild! I found my niche, and in finding my niche and going through all the young gay madness that people go through, I found that this is fun! And then HIV/AIDS hit the scene.”
It was seeing the lack of funding for HIV/AIDS prevention outreach to the Black gay community that lit a new fire in Arrington. “If we don’t stand up and be spoken for and be seen, ain’t nobody else going to do that,” he recalls thinking. “At that time it was all white gay men. And everything was designed around their journey and their culture and the social norms that were involved in that community. Very little targeted us, and hardly nothing targeted African American women that were diagnosed. They were just way in the backseat. And those were issues that we had to talk about.”
He made it his mission to understand everything about HIV, from the politics around the disease to prevention and intervention programs. In Denver, he helped start CARE: Black Gays and Lesbians United Against HIV/AIDS. He was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987 and came out with his diagnosis in 1989.
“There’s an African proverb that, ‘He who conceals a disease cannot find the cure,’” he says. “And I was not shamed by this.”
He spoke out about predominantly white-led organizations gobbling up all the funding for programs, and at a conference in Denver he caught the attention of a woman from the Ohio Department of Health. They had money to fund prevention and outreach programs for men of color throughout the state, she told him, but they needed someone with his expertise. Arrington took the job, returning to Ohio in 1995 to coordinate the department’s HIV/AIDS programs targeting Black men. He even spoke before Congress about the lack of funding for programs focused on people of color with HIV.
In 1998, Arrington started a support group in Akron, Ohio, for Black men living with HIV. That grew into the Akron AIDS Collaborative which has been providing services to and advocating for Black men and women in the community living with HIV/AIDS since 2000.
Last year, Akron AIDS Collaborative opened the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ+ Resource Center in what Arrington describes as a “little raggedy shack house.” The Center provides an array of services from free HIV and COVID testing to case management for people seeking housing and other services. While its services are built around the needs and culture of the Black LGBTQ+ community, it is open to all in need.
This year brought even further growth. Through a partnership with Equitas Health, which runs community health centers throughout Ohio and other states, the Center recently relocated to a 6,000-square-foot space within the Equitas Health facility in Akron. The partnership has allowed the Center to expand its healthcare and dental services through Equitas, as well as providing housing and shelter, mental health services, and a drop-in center with a banned book library, food and clothing banks, and laundry on site. They also host community events like the weekly Community Outreach Dinner and Family Black Pride, a series of Pride celebrations centering the experiences and values of the Black LGBTQ+ community.
Of course, the work is never done. The Center is currently running a capital campaign, including a GoFundMe campaign, to raise funds to renovate the new space.
Looking back at his long life of service, Arrington says that moving back to Ohio and initiating the movement that grew into the Bayard Rustin LGBTQ Resource Center is what he is most proud of. And while he still thinks some view him as “trouble,” there are also plenty of people in the community who he says tell him, “Steve, job well done. We’re proud of you.”
“All I can do,” he says, “is move consistently and stay focused on the mission at hand. That’s all I can do.”