Written by Rashad Burgess, [email protected]
When I was in my late teens, I started singing in the choir at my church. It was through this experience that I got to know my true self and it is also where my coming out journey began.
It was there, in the context of the Black church, that I first learned about HIV/AIDS.
At the time I was first singing in the church choir and community choirs around Chicago, HIV/AIDS was beginning to take a toll on Black communities. I very clearly recall seeing Black men, visibly ill, in church.
The summer before I came out, two of my friends took me to my first Pride celebration, Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade and afterwards the classic gathering of the Black LGBTQ+ community at Belmont Rocks. Just a few months later, one of those friends unexpectedly died of an AIDS-related illness. I didn’t know, until after he died, that he’d been living with HIV, and his death was surrounded by secrecy kept by his closest friends.
At his funeral service, I remember listening to a speaker, who noted my friend’s volunteer work at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. To this day, I recall the speaker spelling out the letters “A-I-D-S” unwilling or too afraid to say the word out loud. I thought to myself, “Why is this word so hard to say?”
That same year, I started my first quarter at the University of Chicago and for my summer internship program, I chose to study HIV and the Black church. Since then, I have dedicated my life’s work to HIV/AIDS, focused on helping populations that are still disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. I spent years at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overseeing HIV/AIDS-related training and capacity building. It was that work that eventually brought me to Gilead, as I learned about the company’s commitment to going beyond medicine to address HIV.
In October 2013, I joined Gilead because I saw it as a place of healing. I saw that the organization was helping improve the lives of the people that I loved the most. At Gilead, I have the opportunity to meet with HIV healthcare providers, work with communities and see the impact our therapies have on the lives of patients. I have seen firsthand that what we do can make a difference for “the least of these” – people left out and left behind.
I have now been married to my husband, Bishop OC Allen, who is a pastor at our church, for 18 years. I joined Gilead the same year our daughter was born and when we adopted our son – the year our family became complete. What propels me now is not only the communities we serve and the work we do for people living with HIV, but also being a father and thinking about the life and foundation I want to leave for my children.
I pinch myself still every day. I’m a child from the South Side and south suburbs of Chicago. Many people would never have thought I would make it to the place I’m at now, especially being gay and coming out in my teens. I have overcome adversity, but I have been fortunate to have people such as my parents and an entire village of friends and mentors who have always loved and supported me, and to work for an organization that accepts me for my full self.
Rashad Burgess is Executive Director of HIV Community Operations at Gilead.
Editor’s Note: This is one of three profiles shared by Gilead employees in honor of Pride Month.