Interview with David Furnish
Insight David Furnish speaks on meeting Elton John, why they started their AIDS foundation, and the focus on diversity and inclusion that Toronto embodies.
Mediaplanet: Can you tell us more about what it was like growing up in North Scarborough and Toronto as a closeted gay man? Can you tell us more about your coming-out story? What inspired you to be true to yourself? How did your family members react when you told them? Was it difficult to share?
David Furnish: Back in 1981, the initial outbreak of AIDS occurred during the time I was trying to come to terms with my own sexuality. All of the news stories were talking about a “gay plague,” which automatically made me feel very stigmatized and quite literally drove me back into the closet. My own mother said this disease was probably going to kill me. I was absolutely horrified by the negative way people who were already sick, or perceived to be infected, were being portrayed in the media – the horrible things that were said about Rock Hudson and other prominent people who were revealed to have AIDS. So often, vulnerable people were being blamed for their illness and portrayed as disposable or less than human. And like other young gay men during that time, I lost so many friends, co-workers, mentors, and role models. It was a terrifying time, and for me, it was just a million times harder to come to terms with my sexuality and my feelings about myself.
MP: Over time, how have you noticed Toronto become more of an inclusive and diverse community?
DF: I have been so proud to watch Toronto, and indeed all of Canada, really take the lead in becoming one of the most diverse and inclusive and compassionate nations in the world. Our wonderful young Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has certainly stepped forward and provided outspoken leadership and demonstrated true personal commitment to seeing Canada become a more inclusive country. And the nation, and particularly Toronto, has responded beautifully, reaching out to the LGBT community with the largest Pride celebration in North America. We’ve also opened our hearts and our borders to refugees fleeing persecution and increased our efforts to help people struggling with addiction by providing harm reduction services to help them stay healthy until they can take that brave step into rehabilitation. We can absolutely do even more in these and other areas, but I’m really proud of our country’s leadership and compassion.
MP: How did you meet your husband, Elton John?
DF: I first met Elton back in October of 1993 when a mutual friend invited me to a dinner at Elton’s home in Windsor. We very quickly discovered we had a lot in common, and it wasn’t long before our friendship turned into a serious relationship.
MP: Can you tell us more about the Elton John AIDS Foundation and its mission?
DF: Since 1992, EJAF has raised more than $400 million to help end the AIDS epidemic in our lifetime. We believe every individual deserves dignity, respect, and unfettered access to accurate information, prevention methods, treatment, medical care, support services, and advocacy no matter who they are, where they live, what they believe, what they do, or who they love.
Right now, we’re in the midst of commemorating the Foundation’s 25th year. This is a critical moment both for EJAF and for the continually evolving response to the AIDS epidemic. Even without a cure, we currently have the necessary prevention and treatment methods in hand to achieve an AIDS-free generation. What we lack are the dollars and the political will to achieve universal access to these lifesaving programs. EJAF is helping to lead the way, and our work has never been more urgently needed.
We’re expanding our investments in HIV-related programs, services, and advocacy to address the threat of HIV/AIDS in the Southern U.S. We have become the largest nonprofit funder of syringe exchange programs in the U.S. to help end injection-related HIV transmission, alleviate and prevent thousands of overdose deaths, and address the country’s out-of-control opioid addiction crisis. And we’re launching the largest private funding initiative in U.S. history specifically supporting the health and rights of Black gay and transgender individuals.
Supporting key vulnerable populations and communities most affected by HIV/AIDS has been the cornerstone of EJAF’s efforts for decades. This includes significant investments in programs supporting LGBT health and rights across the U.S. and around the globe. One example of this work would be the $10 million LGBT Fund, a public-private partnership jointly created by EJAF and PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a federal government program enacted by President George W. Bush) to address the stigma, discrimination and violence preventing LGBT people in Sub-Saharan Africa from accessing the health and HIV services they need. By providing funding to grassroots organizations and targeting projects that support LGBT people within countries with a high HIV burden, the LGBT Fund constitutes an important step toward ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
Here in Canada, EJAF has focused its efforts on changing laws that criminalize people living with HIV/AIDS and supporting important programs assisting LGBT and HIV-positive people who are fleeing persecution to resettle in the U.S. and Canada. Over the years, we have been so grateful to create wonderful relationships with important partners in Canada – like our good friend Frank Giustra who has been an incredibly generous supporter of our work. We were so proud to honor Frank with EJAF’s Enduring Vision Award several years ago; he is a tremendous inspiration to all of us. We’ve also had great success working with Holt Renfrew on a successful Holt Renfrew Candle project that raised almost $100,000 for EJAF’s work.
MP: What is one thing you'd like to say to the LGBTQ+ community in Toronto?
DF: Back in June of 2015, it was my great honor to serve as the Grand Marshall for the Toronto Pride Parade. That was an amazing and inspiring day, and I’ll never forget how uplifting it was to walk the parade route, speak to the thousands of people who attended, and meet with so many people involved in organizing the parade. That day, I talked about the power of love and compassion.
Today, more than half of HIV cases in Canada occur among men who have sex with men. Worldwide, gay men are 19 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS. Transwomen – 49 times more likely. The disease lives anywhere in the world where a person endures a culture of fear that prevents them from getting tested for HIV or seeking treatment when they need it. It lives where stigma, discrimination and prejudice persist and prevent equal access to healthcare, housing and crucial support systems for communities that need it most.
It lives—but it won’t survive. Not if we commit to creating a more equal world. Not if we show compassion in the face of the stigma. Not if we speak out against discrimination. Not if we remember to keep fighting, to show love. Because even in the face of horror, love has the power to move minds, to save lives.
Just like that wonderful June day in 2015, today, as Chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, I’m asking all of Toronto to join us in spreading the power of compassion, and in renewing our fight for equality – in Canada and around the world. Together, we can change the course of history.