From the earliest moments of Gil’s life in Panama, his father taught him the importance of improvisation and truth, both of which would shape Gil’s colorful personality and esteemed career. Gilberto “Gil” Gerald was born in 1950 in Panama City, where his family had settled from the Caribbean, and was expected to help translate Spanish for his mother’s English-speaking family. Translation needs both improvisation and truth to work, to convey information on the fly — but communicating his identity was another battle altogether.
Gil came out at Pratt Institute, where he was studying architecture in 1972. When an art student declined to join Gil’s fraternity because of his sexuality, Gil realized he had to translate his own truth. He started gradually, going to clubs, eventually breaking up with his girlfriend and telling his parents. But his dad believed that he was mentally ill and should see a psychiatrist. That translation error persisted until Gil’s father was 89, when he finally invited Gil and his partner to a Thanksgiving dinner.
In the meantime, Gil focused on building things. Ever since he was six years old, he had watched his family “pore over” drawings and blueprints and construction maps, but Gil built non-profit organizations and social change instead of skyscrapers and bridges. In 1978, just after moving to Washington, D.C., Gil founded the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG), which quickly established charters all over the U.S. They organized to battle the intersections between racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, since white gay spaces used “carding” at bars and various other methods to exclude the Black gay community. Similar problems arose during the HIV/AIDS crisis; even supportive politicians often refused to have conversations with the queer Black community, instead reserving research and attention for white people.
Gil fought hard for racial equity in activist spaces, introducing queer Black individuals into white-dominated or heteronormative Black spaces. He got Audre Lorde to speak at the 20th anniversary of the ‘63 March on Washington, endorsed various queer/civil rights bills in Congress, and tried to reform how politicians and the public viewed the gay community.
And change did occur, though gradually. Gil helped establish a NCBLG board consisting of primarily Black feminist women. He put on the first national conference about AIDS in the Black community and joined the National AIDS Network, which continues to focus on the disease in marginalized communities today. Though Gil recognizes that the work is not finished — that even in the most progressive of spaces like San Francisco, discrimination exists and continues to isolate gay Black individuals — he remains optimistic about the future.
Despite the chaos of activism, Gil always remembers to improvise, to find the truth between his identities and his environments, and to translate others’ truths into the mainstream culture. Today, we have the privilege of hearing Gil translate his own truth for us, showing us the architecture of his rousing life.