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Michael Hinson, a legendary elder in Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community, died on Saturday at 55 after a few weeks in the hospital, said longtime friend David Fair. The warmth and love Hinson traded left as much of an impact as his impressive list of accomplishments, friends and colleagues said.
Hinson was one of the first Philly residents to seriously strategize against HIV/AIDS in the Black community. He was the city’s first unofficial LGBT liaison, founded Colours Magazine, and co-founded the Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council and Philly Black Pride. He helped adjust a buddy system for people with HIV/AIDS so that it was more inclusive to people of color — and helped with an intervention for the disease that made it all the way to the CDC’s list of effective interventions.
In recent years, Hinson tackled Philadelphia’s pervasive homelessness as head of the nonprofit SELF, Inc.
“He was a renaissance man,” Fair told Billy Penn. “He was a dancer, an artist. He gave his heart and soul to those things, while also giving heart and soul to protecting homeless gay youth, creating a magazine for the gay community. He did so many different kinds of things, and he gave his heart and soul to all of them.”
The first time the two met, Fair recalled, it was in 1986 and Hinson had walked into Fair’s Center City office to yell at him.
Fair was an activist with the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force. Hinson, just 19 years old at the time, strutted into his office with a bone to pick: he thought the org wasn’t doing enough for people of color.
“He got very angry, because the AIDS Task Force was very much oriented toward Center City’s white gay community,” Fair said. “Michael rarely pissed people off. He could be very assertive and very direct, but people trusted he was doing what was right. We became very close from that point forward.”
Friends remember Hinson as a humble but relentless advocate, and a coach for a generation of Black LGBTQ leaders in Philadelphia. They say Hinson was pragmatic, and “brilliant” at working the system. In his personal life, he was silly — but also sentimental, and sometimes private.
“When I met Michael, he was so outspoken, calling people out. I was like, ‘This guy is fierce,’” said José de Marco, a longtime ACT UP Philadelphia organizer. “This was the first time a queer, Black man stood up and called out the racism and homophobia for what it was. No one was dealing with Black, queer men getting HIV before him.”
In 2000, Hinson was hired by former Mayor John Street to serve as a liaison to LGBTQ communities — a position that would later hold its own permanent office in city government.
One of the more obvious marks he left during his tenure was the rainbow street signs installed in the Gayborhood.
As Hinson moved up, he paid forward the mentorship he got from Fair. Public Health Management Corporation program director Lee Carson met Hinson in the early 2000s, and credits his success in part to Hinson’s advice.
“He just had so much knowledge about institutions in Philadelphia — the behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t know, he was privy to that because of his positions and his connections in the city,” said Carson, a Black gay man. “He gave me the confidence I needed to be more assertive in the work I was doing. I wouldn’t have had the same presence in Philly’s LGBTQ community had it not been for Michael.”
Chris Alston got similar support. Alston said Hinson convinced him to take over as president of Philly Black Pride in 2012 — which he said launched his career forward.
“Even though I left the office of president for Philly Black Pride, 10 years later he still called me Mr. President, saying I would always be his president,” Alston said.
Hinson recently took on a new mentee named Nhakia Outland. She founded a nonprofit called Prevention Meets Fashion, which offers gender-affirming clothes and trauma-informed services. Outland started to doubt herself when she was laid off from her job at the Mazzoni Center a few years ago — but Hinson encouraged her.
“It’s just really humbling and really important for us as Black emerging leaders to have another Black person’s support,” Outland said. “They know the microaggressions, the backlash, the gatekeeping we’re going to get. It’s really important to have someone to lean on. That was Mike for me.”
Many of the people he coached through their careers wound up becoming close friends.
They remember his presence at the now-closed Key West bar, a Gayborhood institution that used to welcome mostly Black, gay people, or rolling up to a house party or a karaoke event.
De Marco, of ACT UP Philadelphia, remembers a hilarious, devoted friend — always down to have friends over for brunch or retell an old story. “Michael was a lot of fun,” De Marco said. “When he was home, he would let his hair down.”
In his free time, Hinson practiced Yoruba, a traditional African religion that follows a hierarchy of hundreds of different spirits. In recent years, de Marco said, Hinson would perform traditional Yoruba wedding ceremonies for queer couples who were close to him.
Hinson loved a good adrenaline rush, said Fair, the friend who met him through Philadelphia AIDS Task Force, and was a regular skydiver and bridge jumper.
“What I was proudest of about Michael was that he never gave up on anything he wanted to do,” Fair said. “He just kept showing up for whatever was moving him at that time. He was able to advocate without pissing people off, win without holding it over people, and fail without making himself seem like a failure.”
The news of his death is rippling through the community. De Marco thinks the city will be able to feel the void.
“Michael would say, ‘José, make no mistake, white government doesn’t give a shit about Black and Latinx people. Unless you speak up, nothing will change,’” de Marco said. “He was a really loud voice in the government, calling people on their bullshit. You have to have people like this.”