Charles King's Life of Ministry, Activism and Sexy Walks in the Garden with Jesus
This is the deepest and most intense Caftan interview I have done so far—with the queer evangelical cofounder of the massive NYC nonprofit that revolutionized housing for people with HIV.
A quick note before we begin in earnest: Thanks to all of you who reached out with notes of concern and good wishes after my short post saying I was in the hospital. I am STILL in the hospital—I hope to be out by Wednesday or Thursday—but am obviously enough on the mend to be sitting up and finally getting this truly extraordinary interview out the door to you. Please note, I wrote the intro below in early May! xTim
Caftan readers, it’s the lusty month of May! I suppose a Substack aimed at we gay gentlemen “of a certain age” is the appropriate place to make a Camelot reference, no? Camelot was one of those movie musicals I stumbled on as a kid on a bored weekend afternoon and ended up being completely enchanted by in the way that only a budding gay can. I loved Vanessa Redgrave singing about the lusty month of May—really? I hadn’t known that May was lusty!—and how it’s “the time for every frivolous whim, proper or im-….” How cool!, my prepubescent self thought. You can actually make a rhyme out of a prefix without using the whole word! Kind of like when Madonna sings, “Papa don’t preach/I’ve been losing sleep/Papa don’t preach/I’m in trouble—deep.”
Anyway—I hope this finds all of you well. I have an epic interview for you this month—one I did in two sessions of two to three hours each. It’s with the Rev. Charles King, 68, who is the CEO and cofounder of the 32-year-old Housing Works in NYC, a nonprofit that started small and scrappy, growing out of the Housing Committee of ACT UP, as a way of providing humane housing and other services to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS. But it has grown over the years—if you live in NYC or are even somewhat familiar with NYC, you’ve probably heard of it—into a massive agency with myriad residences, sites, services and businesses (most famously the thrift stores, but also now a cannabis store) all over the city and even beyond, including Haiti and Puerto Rico. It is also a very activist agency whose staff and clients have never shied away from being arrested in civil disobedience protests, which is unusual among nonprofits who receive a certain amount of public funding and often don’t want to rock the boat. (And boy, did they rock the boat in the nineties with Mayor Giuliani, who despised them.)
Housing Works very much reflects the social-justice ethos of its founders, who were also lovers, Keith Cylar, who died in 2004, and Charles, who is now 68. (Ginny Shubert and Eric Sawyer, both friends of mine, were also founders.) I’ve wanted to do a long interview with Charles for a long time. Full disclosure: When I was a writer and editor at Poz magazine back in the early-mid 2000s, I was so enamored of Housing Works’ activist mojo that I actually left Poz to be HW’s advocacy communications writer. I lasted a year and a half—I ended up missing journalism—but I never cut ties with Housing Works, having freelanced or volunteered for them (including during the early months of COVID) in the years since, and Charles has since remained a valued friend and source of intel on health- and housing-related stories I've worked on. He is a really fascinating and admirable guy—one who grew up in an evangelical farming family in south Texas and was basically cast out of that family for being gay but, instead of turning his back on religion, doubled down on the idea of Christ as a radical organizer of the marginalized and…well, believe me, his whole life arc is encompassed in this unusually long and deep interview.
Speaking of radical, Charles promised me radical honesty and openness when he agreed to do the interview, and he did not disappoint, for which I am really grateful. He talked about something he did as a child that many people would, even years later, be too ashamed to talk about openly, but Charles, being Charles, talked about how it ended up shaping his relationship to his own whiteness for the rest of his life. He talked about how rejection by his own family ended up driving his life’s work. About his (I believe) 15-year relationship with Cylar who, like Charles, was a charismatic organizer but also a cocaine user whose use complicated Housing Works’ management and ultimately played a role in his death. About, after years of Charles being known as one of NYC’s social-justice heroes, what it felt like to be branded anti-union when Housing Works was attempting (successfully, ultimately) to unionize a few years ago. About becoming a surrogate father later in life. About the role of sex in his life then and now. About having lived for most of Housing Works’ existence in Housing Works housing, among his own clients.
Often I shy away from interviewing advocate and nonprofit types for Caftan because, and I say this as someone who has reported on activists and nonprofit types for years and has great respect for them, they can often settle into a kind of boilerplate language and point of view that is boringly bereft of nuance, ambivalence and, above all, who they are amid the work they do. This, I believe, is not that interview. Charles was really candid and human with me. I count him among those who have given me a model of how to live one’s progressive values without becoming a humorless, hectoring bore—no small feat! So do please enjoy this interview—the next one I have lined up, if it pans out well (because often they don’t, and I don’t run them), promises to be the diametric opposite, with someone who grew a gay empire of style, not substance. I mean, one must have both in life, n’est-ce pas?
Enjoy the chat with Charles and enjoy this last day of THE LUSTY MONTH OF MAY! And as always, for those of who subscribed to Caftan at $5/month, including a wave of recent subscribers, THANK YOU! You enable me to continue with this wacky labor of love. xTim
Tim: Charles, I am so excited to talk to you. First, describe where you live.
Charles: Since 2008, in a one-bedroom staff apartment in our Housing Works residence on 130th Street in Harlem.
Before that, I lived in a guest room at Cylar House [a longtime Housing Works residence in the East Village, named for Keith Cylar]. It has a kitchenette in the hallway with a two-burner stove and a microwave.
Tim: How is it decorated?
Charles: Hundreds of books—shelves and stacks everywhere. Mostly nonfiction, dating back to my college years, a lot of theology books and a pretty robust LGBT section. I have some tie-dyed fabric art that an old flame made for me years ago when I was in divinity school and he was a Yale undergrad. And I have photos on the walls, including of my kids. The apartment is in a supportive housing facility made up of two joined brownstones with ten units. Across the street, there's a third brownstone with two- and three-bedroom apartments for families with children. Generally on holidays I host a cookout for the residents of all the buildings or we dine out. For a long time pre-COVID, I was leading a cooking group on Saturdays.
Tim: What is it like living in your own workplace?
Charles: I've lived in a Housing Works community since 1996—I love the opportunity of interacting with residents in a way that's not business-focused and just being a part of one another's lives. I think it's very easy when you sit on top of an organization that had $174 million in revenue last year, with a staff of more than a thousand, to become removed from the people whom the organization serves. So living in a Housing Works residence helps me avoid that. I also have an open-door policy in my office at 57 Willoughby St. in Brooklyn, which means that if I'm not in a confidential meeting, I leave the door open and anyone can come in.
But living here is not all for business—it's about Housing Works being a healing community. When I lived in Cylar House, a resident informed me she'd been diagnosed with cancer and asked if I'd pray for her, which of course I did. Four or five months later, she told me the cancer was terminal and she again asked if I'd pray for her as she went through her last days.
That was incredibly moving to me. I hold a memorial service for clients when they pass away. I've done dozens of them, particularly since COVID—more than at any time since before the emergence of effective HIV meds in the late 1990s.
Tim: What is a typical day like for you?
Charles: Generally I go to bed between nine and ten at night and wake up between 4:30 and 5:30. I put on the coffee, read, scroll messages, then read the print version of The New York Times.
Tim: Wow really, you still do?
Charles: I was going to Australia a couple weeks ago and took a whole week's worth of newspapers with me. Just because something happened a week ago doesn't mean it's stale. I read every section. When I read the news on my phone, I'm bouncing through the greatest hits, but with the print paper, I'm absorbing every page.
So anyway then around 6:30am I go for a run and listen to something on YouTube, PBS, MSNBC etcetera while I'm running. If I miss church on Sunday, I'll listen to the service. I usually run two to five miles every single day. I also swim. At Riverbank State Park, it's $1.50 a day for seniors like me. I used to bike from Harlem to work in Brooklyn but I had hand surgery last fall and haven't gotten back into biking yet.
Then after I'll have breakfast, which could be dinner leftovers.
Tim: You can't eat dinner leftovers for breakfast—that’s just wrong!
Charles: I don't have this stilted notion that breakfast has to be bacon and eggs, sorry. Then I'll head to work, 45 minutes on the A train. And then most days are filled with meetings, email, phone calls. We have an executive team meeting on Tuesday. I travel a lot for work too, to various conferences and panels. Three to four nights a week, I have a business dinner. Then I go home and read the paper until I fall asleep. If I have no work dinner, I'll make something at home like pasta, shrimp and peas with a white sauce, or a big pot of beans with ham hocks.
Ever since I gave up the title of Housing Works president and held onto CEO, I'm no longer bogged down in the day to day. I can focus on international, federal, state and local advocacy, serving as the external face of Housing Works. The only Housing Works program I supervise is our program in Haiti, so I go there a couple of days every other month—and also to visit our program in Puerto Rico.
But in Housing Works' healthcare program, the number of people living with HIV is now no more than a third. Overwhelmingly, we're seeing people who've experienced homelessness, incarceration and chronic conditions including mental health and substance use disorders. We've also expanded into serving homeless people more generally beyond those with HIV. Currently, we're operating four hotels for people leaving incarceration, as well as a stabilization hotel for homeless people living on the street. We'd like to offer an alternative to the congregate housing [NYC shelter system] model, which is dehumanizing and often without services.
Tim: Okay Charles, now let's go way back. You were born in 1955, correct?
Charles: In Wilmington, Delaware, the sixth of ten children. When I was two, my father, who was a preacher who died in 2003, felt called to save the heathen in Mexico and moved us all to southern Texas, with a plan to move us into Mexico, which never happened. I was Wednesday's child, full of woe. As my father informed me before he disowned me for the last time, God had promised him all of his children would be saved, but from when I was age four, he recognized that I was gay, so he tried to beat the devil out of me.
Tim: How did he recognize that?
Charles: I'd make clothes for my Goofy doll and my teddy bear. I guess I was more effeminate than other boys. That was anathema to him. In terms of the first time I remember being disowned, my brother and I were supposed to be weeding in the cotton field and we got into a clod-throwing game. My brother hit me smack in the chest with a clod, and I refused to “die.” I told my brother he couldn't kill me because he was a Christian and the Bible said, "Thou shalt not kill." We went into the house and asked my father to settle the dispute. He took the position that the Ten Commandments meant "thou shalt not murder," but he believed in just war. He asked me, "What if Communists came across the border and were going to kill your mother?" And I stood firm and said that since we were all saved, better to take one for the Lord. That made my father so angry that he ordered the family to shun me. He made me work apart from my brothers in the field and, instead of bathing in the canal, I was given a bucket of water to bathe in, then would be fed dinner and sent to bed before anybody else. I held out for maybe five days until I finally came crying to my dad and said that, okay, yes, I would take up a gun against the Communists, but only to save Mother.
So being beaten and shunned were things that happened fairly often throughout my childhood. Then I announced I was going to a state college instead of a Christian college, which was another point of tension. I received no tuition support from my family. I worked two jobs for 60 hours a week and put myself through Sam Houston State University in Huntsville in three years. And during this time, the minister of a big proper Southern Baptist church asked me to run the church's bus ministry, so I started bringing more than 150 Black and brown kids into the church, integrating it, which created havoc in the church. There was something about that hell-raising that led me to be called to be a minister myself. So I went to Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary.
Tim: But to back up, Charles, what about the abuse you suffered as a child? Have you ever dealt with that?
Charles: In my third year of college, I took a sociology course where child abuse was a topic. Not until then had it dawned on me that I had been abused. I'd never before put together that I had been treated differently from others, or why I had the negative feelings I did toward my father. We saw a film called "Wednesday's Child," which enlightened me.
Tim: Did you ever go to therapy?
Charles: Never. Well, there was a period right after we started Housing Works in 1990 where I'd gotten Keith [Cylar] into rehab and he came home and was in therapy, and I went into therapy for a bit too, but didn't find it at all helpful.
Tim: Why not?
Charles: I don't know—it just didn't do anything for me.
Tim: Knowing you for many years, I sense that you took your own trauma and turned it outward, into helping other people. Would you agree?
Charles: Well—my first semester at seminary, I realized it was not the place for me. It was too rigid, too right-wing. So I was referred to a radical minister in San Antonio, Ron Willis, who had turned his church in Oakland, California, over to the Black Panthers. He hired me on a year internship during which I lived in the shelter that the church ran and worked at a spaghetti house [like a soup kitchen]. I ended up there for three years. So, just as an example of self-therapy by turning outward, I go to know the young men in the area who worked the stroll, where guys would come by and cruise these young and often homeless young guys who were gay sex workers.
And I started this support group for them. And I'm quoting scripture about how God wove me while I was still in my mother's womb, that God made them each exactly as they were meant to be—and I'd been preaching this for several months when it dawned on me one morning: "Wow, this applies to me, too." That was the first time that I accepted my homosexuality, that I was made gay by God.
Tim: That is a really powerful story. Where was your mother in all of this? Is she still alive?
Charles: She's 99 years old. She's a sweet woman but we were a very conservative household that lived by the motto "God is the hand that holds the hammer, the father is the hammer, the mother is the anvil and we're the uncut stone." Wives are subject to their husbands and all the rest of that bullshit.
Tim: Did she just stand by amid the abuse your father gave you?
Charles: "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a fundamental part of their belief. I responded to how I was treated by acting out, so I think my mom probably thought I warranted discipline.
Tim: Were you close with her?
Charles: Everybody loves their mom as a child. In the kitchen when I was helping her cook, she was more tender, I would say. It wasn't unusual that I helped her in the kitchen because we were a family of 12 with only two girls, so the boys had to help with domestic stuff.
So anyway to move forward, in that church, I ended up spending three more years working with abused children, running a shelter where they were sent immediately after being removed from their homes for neglect and abuse. To talk again about turning outward to heal inwardly. And then I went off to Yale Divinity School.
Tim: Growing up in such a conservative family, how do you think you acquired a sense of social justice at such a young age?
Charles: My father was a [conservative] John Bircher, but caring and compassion was my takeaway from scripture—and again, a lot of my outward turn [into service] was shaped by my own experience growing up. But my going to Yale Div was a bit of an embarrassment to my father because it was so liberal. So in his fundraising newsletter, he wrote that I was going there to convert the heathen divinity students. That outraged me. I wrote him, "Don't lie about me—I'm here because this is what I believe..." And I wrote him this credo with a very progressive theological perspective. He wrote me back and said that if I really believed that, then I was not saved, and if I was not saved, then I was not his son. And I wrote back, "I'll give you something to disown me for—I'm gay." And he wrote me back a tract against sodomy and told me he'd known I was gay since I was young, which was why he'd tried to beat the Devil out of me. So once again I was shunned and nobody in my family talked to me for 20 years—except for one younger brother who reached out because we'd fooled around in bed one afternoon when I was in my early teens and he said he felt responsible for my homosexuality. I assured him it wasn't because of him.
Tim: Charles—what you're describing is painful, to be rejected by your whole family. What effect has it had on you?
Charles: I formed an alternative family and became close to other people around me.
Tim: Have you ever allowed yourself to say "I'm hurt"? "I'm sad"?
Charles: No, I never felt that way. I had grown up with these experiences of being castigated, so it felt normal, and I'd already removed myself from that environment once I went off to college.
Tim: You've never allowed yourself to feel grief over it?
Charles: I've never felt the need to give myself permission to feel that.
Tim: What do you think would happen if you did?
Charles: Again, I don't feel grief about it. I'm not sure what allowing myself to feel that means. Other people I counsel who've been disowned, I encourage them to let go of what they can't have and build what they can.
Tim: Okay. And what about your internal coming out? When did you realize and then accept that you were gay?
Charles: In eighth or ninth grade gym, I realized I was attracted to other boys. I'm sure I was effeminate, as I was picked on as the faggot at school. I was first seduced by a guy freshman year in college. I thought I'd committed a great sin, but then I allowed him to seduce me again. He came into my living space on some pretense.
Tim: Would you call it rape or assault in retrospect?
Charles: No—I was willingly engaged. But then my first love affair was in Div School when I feel in love with this undergrad, the one who made me the tie-dye art.
Tim: Why did you stay with religion when you had such a harsh and unaccepting experience of it growing up? I grew up Catholic and found it so boring and irrelevant to real life, I couldn't wait until I didn't have to go to church anymore, although I will admit that the message of Christ to stand up for the weak and the cast-out has stayed with me.
Charles: Everything I've done to help other people through advocacy stems from my faith. It's what I believe we as Christians are called to do. And this gets to another turning point in my life. After my first year at Div School, I was essentially drafted to become the assistant pastor of an all-Black church in New Haven.
Tim: Wait, what?