Anthony “Tony” Silvestre, whose work with the LGBT community was far ahead of its time and made the pioneering Pitt Men’s Study possible, died Sept. 1, 2022 at 75.
Silvestre was one of the founders of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and, for three decades, was on the frontlines of AIDS research for Pittsburgh and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania — work that improved how the country did HIV studies and, eventually, other research that required the enlistment of the public in order to succeed.
Charles Rinaldo, professor of infectious diseases and microbiology in the School of Public Health and of pathology in the School of Medicine, received National Institutes of Health funding in 1983 to study this disease that did not have a name or a known cause yet. And he needed someone who could meet and speak with local LGBT community members on their own terms and gain trust and participation in what became known as the Pitt Men’s Study. Pittsburgh had very few AIDS cases at the time and the NIH questioned whether there might be different strains of the disease in different cities.
Silvestre, then working as an LGBT activist in Philadelphia, was the top choice of the Persad Center, a prominent Pittsburgh LGBT organization. Hiring Silvestre “was the best move I ever made in the study,” Rinaldo recalls. “Tony was fantastic. He said: ‘This is how we need to go about communicating with the community and getting them on our side,’ ” and began attending local LGBT community events and meeting with local LGBT bar owners.
“He set up what I believe was the first community development board for one of these studies in the United States,” Rinaldo said — now something required by NIH for such community research. The study also involved meeting personally with study participants answering questions about their lives and health and allowing the study to take blood samples. Silvestre was there for that part of the job as well, at a time when giving the men a positive AIDS test result was tantamount to pronouncing a death sentence.
“We would have gone down the drain as a study if we hadn’t done it right, and Tony taught us how to do it right,” Rinaldo said. Silvestre’s work there continued for decades, even as the study participants’ needs changed with new effects of the disease emerging, and new medications being developed to make the illness livable.
“Tony and I especially had a bond,” based on their Italian heritage and New York origins, Rinaldo added, but they were also different, since Silvestre was a Zen Buddhist. “He didn’t proselytize but it was in his life in the way he dealt with people,” Rinaldo said.
Silvestre led an ad hoc class on meditation at Pitt and his practice helped him found the Pitt Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies. “Tony was a special person, with a very calm demeanor … We followed his lead. He taught me a lot about dealing with the community in the right way, and I bless him for that.”
Silvestre was born on Feb. 26, 1946 in the Bronx’s “Little Italy,” graduating from Cardinal Spellman High School and enrolling at Holy Cross Brothers Seminary/Stonehill College in Massachusetts for three years. He earned his undergraduate degree from Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., his master’s degree from Penn State University in 1974 and his Ph.D. in social work from Pitt in 1992.
His international advocacy and public health work began at Penn State (1971-76), continued with several Philadelphia organizations (1976-83) and brought him to Pitt in early 1984 until his retirement in 2018.
In 1976, he was the founding chairman of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Council on Sexual Minorities, likely the first such state organization in the country. He was U.S. liaison to the World Health Organization (1990-93) and a subject matter expert on HIV for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2002.
Through the years, he served on many expert and advisory panels for the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Allegheny County Department of Health on HIV, alcohol and substance use among gender and sexual minorities, community marginalization and health education and outreach.
But he is perhaps best known in Pittsburgh for his role in forming and running the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force (now Allies for Health and Wellbeing) in its early years. In the process, he supported more than a dozen other state and community groups promoting LGBTQIA-related and HIV-related health messaging for at-risk communities.
In conjunction with his research and teaching in the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology, he founded the Pennsylvania Prevention Project (now the HIV Prevention and Care Project) there in 1993 to advance comprehensive HIV planning with impacted communities. He also helped create and direct the School of Public Health’s Center for LGBT Research, and was honored by Pitt with the Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award.
He published more than 45 peer-reviewed articles, proceedings and book chapters, and created many state and federal professional reports and presentations as well, much of which can be found at Dickinson College.
His decades of service garnered many community awards: “Outstanding Young Man of America Award” from Advocate Magazine; Pittsburgh’s Lambda Man of the Year Award, the Director’s Advocacy Award from the Lambda Foundation; the Justice Achievement Award from the Thomas Merton Center; and the Founders’ Award from the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. The city of Pittsburgh declared Sept. 21, 2019 “Dr. Tony Silvestre Day” in honor of his work.
Silvestre’s departmental colleague Sarah Krier took a class from him in 2008 that she eventually co-taught with Silvestre and now handles herself. She remembers Silvestre as “the greatest mentor of my life. He mentored so many people around the world. How did he do it all? How did he change my career? He saw something in me that I didn’t even see myself.”
His classroom demeanor in the course Krier took and teaches, “Human Diversity in Public Health Research Practice and Policy,” was “engaging and funny. His course was way ahead of the time in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. The two big lessons were that if you want to know something about people, you need to ask them, but you also need to do critical self-reflection about your privilege and your power which you bring to your work. What he learned from the early days of AIDS is that this was essential.”
In the class’s second assignment, he asked students “how you would take care of yourself as a healthcare worker when you got burned out, and he encouraged us to get out of the classroom and learn from outside of academia.”
She also worked for Silvestre in his last decade with Pitt as a research specialist in the HIV prevention and care project in their school, of which she is now principal investigator.
“He led the way for all of us who are passionate about LGBTQ health and well-being,” as “a fierce advocate and an example that we all wanted to follow. … After he said something, it would move the world forward. Community mobilization was his thing and he was the best at it.” In particular, she remembered an e-mail from him that urged: “‘We all need to succeed and there are far too few of us in this work. We all need to support each other to succeed.’
“He was just an incredible force and an incredible man.”
“It is difficult to overstate the impact that his work has had,” noted David Givens, faculty in Silvestre’s department and now co-PI and director of the HIV Prevention and Care Project and co-director of the Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies. “The groundbreaking work they were able to do (in the governor’s council) extending protections to LGBT people in the state was unprecedented at the time.” There and elsewhere, Silvestre was “always trying to press the conversation: Who is not at this table? What’s next? How to make our effort and the efforts of the state more equitable and more inclusive … really pushing for committee members of color, people who identify as trans.
“This perspective and the way that he pushed for better health outcomes … was looking beyond single issues” and tried more broadly “to improve co-morbidities and other health disparities for communities impacted by HIV,” as well as lessen the impact of stigma, of poverty, of drug and alcohol use and other issues. “It is part of the pattern of his life: looking beyond the issue immediately in front of you and looking at how do we improve the communities for the future.”
When Givens tried to throw a retirement party for Silvestre, he recalled, Silvestre turned it into a presentation honoring those who had died of AIDS and outlining the ways in which we still need to help.
The Center for LGBT Research is now “a leader nationally and internationally in this topic,” Givens said, and the Center for Mindfulness, as “an academic lens for that human experience … was just another way he was looking ahead,” aiming to find evidence-based ways to improve overall health and well-being. “He saw so many of the opportunities that still lie ahead of us. “
Former departmental colleague Mackey Friedman, now at Rutgers, recalls meeting and working with Silvestre beginning in 1990: “I found him to be incredibly warm and welcoming and interested in harnessing all the talent locally to make the conditions better for people who are dealing with HIV. He was a tremendous individual with seemingly unlimited compassion and selflessness, just an incredible human who was always about 25 years ahead of his time.
“This guy had been doing stuff long before the rest of the country caught up,” Friedman added. “He was pushing for LGBTQ-plus equity at very high levels of government, (and with) bottomless charm, very canny strategies, he was able to make things better for LGBTQ-plus folks in Pennsylvania. The organizations that he has helped found continue to be the bedrock and foundation for LGBTQ-plus equity here. He was an absolute visionary.”
Talking to people recently about Silvestre — those who met him once, those who knew him for years — Friedman has found “they all say the same thing: They felt so welcomed in his company. They also felt like he wanted to be right there, right then, talking with them.”
He is survived by his husband Michael Sutherland, sister Angelina, 10 nieces and nephews and 10 great-nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held in Pittsburgh at a future date. Memorial gifts are suggested to the Thích Nhất Hạnh Foundation, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026
— Marty Levine