May 18, 2020

LBGTQ+ Caucus Member Profile: George Sonsel

HIV/AIDS: Pioneer and health activist on the front lines

“The development of services directed within our own community and the commitment of our community towards providing those things is a huge shift from when I came out,” said George Sonsel, a Democrats Abroad member and long-term AIDS advocate.

Sonsel, 75, has been based in The Hague for the past six years, alongside his Dutch husband, Sven Paardekooper. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he moved to California to study, eventually coming out of the closet and moving to Palm Springs. Sonsel spent the bulk of his career working with HIV/AIDS patients, and was one of the earliest medical professionals to do so.

When the AIDS epidemic hit in the early 1980s, Sonsel witnessed its destruction firsthand. He worked as a psychologist, and his then partner was a nurse. Together, they saw the rise of a strange disease that attacked the immune system with brutal efficiency, killing previously healthy young men in just a few months and ravaging the gay community. Many medical professionals refused to care for the patients. The two of them lost 32 friends in a single year while watching the federal government ignore the epidemic raging outside their door.

“Your life, your mind, your everything, is so reset to survival,” he said.

For Sonsel, the gay community of his youth was marked by homophobia, violence, and repression. He’d been married five years and fathered two children before coming out, and recalled losing jobs and relationships. In particular, the medical community heavily stigmatized the LGBT community, viewing them as untrustworthy and promiscuous.

So when an unknown disease began to infect young gay men in the early 1980s, many medical professionals turned a blind eye. But not Sonsel. His experience in the social work field drew him towards action.

Thus began a project in 1982 in Sonsel’s living room, along with his then partner and a small group of others. Desert AIDS Project, as it was soon named, provided palliative care and other resources to patients living with HIV/AIDS. With his background in social work and psychology, Sonsel was well equipped to found the nonprofit that would work to turn the tide of the burgeoning epidemic.

Still, he faced heavy opposition, including within the community. At that time, Palm Springs was more a collection of a few gay-owned businesses than the LGBT travel mecca it has become today. In fact, many local business owners were hesitant to draw attention to the emerging crisis. 

“I had the unfortunate experience of being publicly humiliated and rejected by the gay business community, who saw my work [...] as bringing attention to the epidemic in a resort community, and that was going to kill their business,” said Sonsel.

However, these businesses eventually realized that they needed to help stabilize the community or risk collapsing entirely, and opposition slowly ebbed away. Eventually, after two years of preparation, Desert AIDS Project obtained nonprofit status and began seeing patients. The community’s need for the Desert AIDS Project has been clearly demonstrated with the recent passage of its 30th anniversary providing medical and dental care, and social services!

Sonsel’s work pre-dated much of the federal government’s AIDS response, which did not begin in earnest until the late 1980s. But when it did, Sonsel was a natural choice to lead the charge. He moved to Washington, DC to lead national relief efforts, more than a decade after Desert AIDS Project’s founding. Sonsel spent 18 years doing research, advising policy, and distributing HIV/AIDS resources across the country.

Eventually, his work took him back to California. There, he met and married Paardekooper, who had been living in Los Angeles for years by the time they met in 2005. When they began to explore living in Europe, Paardekooper’s home country was a natural choice.

Now, in the Netherlands, Sonsel is enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Their six years in The Hague have served as a solid base for travel, though they’re looking to return to California in the future.

“We’ve had a great time,” Sonsel explains. “But we feel like maybe it’s time to go back.”

In the forty-odd years since he came out, Sonsel notes that the biggest changes came in the form of organization and in the radical changing of attitudes. Compared to his youth in Dallas, Texas, today’s American LGBT community is far more open and free -- thanks to the work of advocates like him.

“A lot of that stuff just seems to be gone, which is wonderful,” he says.