Moved to Action
Chris Beyrer’s ’81 personal encounter with the AIDS epidemic sparks lifelong passion
by Jonathan Everitt
As a young gay man living in New York City in the 1980s, Chris Beyrer ’81 witnessed the gravity of the AIDS epidemic firsthand. He watched friends and loved ones die—including his own partner. Little was understood about the disease. Treatment was ineffective. The experience shook him deeply.
“My whole life I was a relatively happy person,” Beyrer says. “I was out early and had an accepting family. I had no experience with this kind of enormous tragedy.”
Those tumultuous years led Beyrer to build his career as a relentless public health advocate working on HIV/AIDS prevention. He’s also tackled related issues ranging from substance abuse to human rights, and his work has taken him around the world. Today, he’s a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an internationally renowned expert on AIDS.
Born in Bern, Switzerland, while his father was an American medical student, Beyrer’s family later settled in East Islip, N.Y., where he graduated from high school. His parents live there to this day, his father a practicing doctor at age 80.
Beyrer was drawn to Hobart and William Smith after attending a sizable high school—his graduating class was nearly 800. He was looking for something on a more human scale. The Colleges also caught his eye because his father, Dr. Charles R. Beyrer, is a 1956 Hobart grad.
“Hobart and William Smith offered a nice balance of arts and sciences,” Beyrer says. “I thought I might be a writer when I was young. I was interested in poetry.”
But he found his passion in another area.
After graduating cum laude from Hobart in 1981 with a bachelor’s in history and spending time in Asia studying Buddhism, Beyrer went on to earn his M.D. at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his MPH at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Beyrer was working on his residency at Johns Hopkins University in 1991 when he lost his partner, Ed Luther, to AIDS. The grief set him on a course that would shape his career for the next 20 years.
“We were in Baltimore and neither of us had family here,” he recalls. “I was his primary caretaker. To make a living, I was moonlighting at two AIDS clinics at Hopkins. In 1991 and 1992, there was no effective treatment. Basically everybody progressed. It was intensely painful.
“Ed had started a memoir that he didn’t have time to finish,” Beyrer says. “Some friends of mine had a house on Fire Island so after Ed’s death, I went there and was living alone and grieving and writing. A friend called from Baltimore. Hopkins had received a grant to work on AIDS in Thailand and they needed someone who could move out there the next week. It struck me as a way to keep moving and do something meaningful. I could have some space away from New York and from all our friends dying. So I went there in 1992.”
The years in Thailand reignited his drive to make a difference.
“I'm eternally grateful to the Thai community because it turned out there was a huge amount of work to do,” he says. “I reinvented my work, focusing on HIV prevention and policy, outreach, and working with affected communities.”
HIV/AIDS treatment has since taken some dramatic turns. He remembers attending a 1996 AIDS conference in Vancouver, B.C., when reports of the first successful AIDS “cocktail” drugs surfaced.
“It was an unforgettable experience sitting in a huge hall at a conference, seeing for the first time the data that was so clear that this combination was working,” he says. “The reversal in immune decline and the incredible physical transformation of people was evident.”
Beyrer returned to Baltimore—and Johns Hopkins—in 1997. While treatment has seen astounding improvements, the fight against AIDS rages on in new parts of the world in new demographics and new generations perhaps too young to remember or understand the threat.
“New infections among young gay men are high and rising,” Beyrer points out. “It’s proving devilishly difficult to address.”
But address it he does. Today, Beyrer is director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program; founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights; the co-principal investigator for the Johns Hopkins Center for AIDS Research; and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health.
He’s also the incoming president of the International AIDS Society.
In recognition of the tremendous difference he has made and continues to make around the world, in December 2013, Beyrer received the Hobart Alumni Association’s Medal of Excellence.
Alongside his HIV/AIDS work, Beyrer has also been a vocal advocate for international LGBT rights, which, he explains, has new chapters each year – some full of promise, others full of struggle.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Beyrer says of efforts to advance LGBT rights. He points to recent developments in places like Uganda and in Russia, where he has been working for more than 10 years.
In a professional life surrounded by conflict and struggle, Beyrer finds his emotional center in things like his relationship with his partner of 17 years, Mike Smit, a nurse practitioner he married in April 2013.
He also turns to Buddhism, which he’s been practicing for 33 years.
“I got involved in Buddhism in high school,” Beyrer says, “mostly in a search for meaning. I looked at lots and lots of traditions. Finding Tibetan Buddhist philosophy was enormously liberating—and practical in the development of insight.”
“It’s a grounding part of my work,” he explains. “Over the past decade, what I’ve tried to do is bring my Buddhist principles to life in my work because there isn’t time to do it any other way.”
It comes down to simply remembering why he’s in this line of work. “In Buddhism, acts are neutral, but motivation is important. I never give a lecture without first offering that up. Reminding myself, this is to reduce unnecessary suffering, to open the audience’s hearts and minds,” he says.
“Public health–my field–has been described as compassion at a distance because you’re trying to address things like epidemics. It’s important to keep the practice of compassion front and center. It’s imperative in public health that you find people of similar motivation and connect profoundly with colleagues as people.
“It’s not just the right thing to do—the outcomes are better.”
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