Michael Hinson, Jr: A Life of Activism

Michael Hinson smiles at the camera. He is a Black man wearing a blue suit with polkadot button-up and thick, black glasses.
Michael Hinson, Jr.

Michael Jordan once said, “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.” 

This weekend the PGN will host the Stonewall Awards. It’s a chance for us to honor and acknowledge a slate of people who have had an impact on the LGBTQ community in a positive way. People being recognized include Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride; Stephen Carlino of the Tavern Group; photographer and man about town HughE Dillon; the organization Students Run Philly Style, the star of “Abbott Elementary,” activist, and ally Sheryl Lee Ralph; and this week’s Portrait, Michael Hinson, Jr. 

Hinson is the president and chief operating officer of the housing organization SELF, Inc. and so much more.

So where do you hail from? 

Home is Hemingway, South Carolina, which is low country, and Geechee, about 40 minutes from Myrtle Beach. We’re having the 40th family reunion this weekend, so I’ll be taking the red eye back to be at the awards ceremony. Hopefully I won’t be on my mother’s naughty list for too long, they’re not too happy I’m not staying the whole weekend! 

Big reunion?

Yes! I have a very, very big family. My immediate family is my mom, my dad, 3 boys, and 3 girls — I’m the oldest — but our house was always the house where everyone came to hangout. People looking for their way or needing help ended up at our house. When my mom’s sister unexpectedly transitioned, she had 11 children. Her husband just couldn’t take care of all of them by himself, so 4 of them came to us. That’s the way my parents operated. If any of them were having trouble, they’d just rotate in! And each summer, all of the family migrated from all over back to the South, or at least they’d send their kids here, and it was like party time USA for us. A house full of cousins, aunts and uncles, we loved it.

You’re a junior, so tell me about Michael Hinson, Sr. 

It’s interesting, I was raised by my dad, Ned, and my birth father Michael Hinson, Sr. is my birth father who I love and adore as well. He transitioned about 20 years ago, so I grew up having two fathers. But the funny story within the story is that right before he passed away, I found out that his name wasn’t actually Michael Samuel Hinson. His name is actually Samuel Aloysius Hinson, so I’m not really a Jr. after all! My great-great grandmother was very Catholic, in fact she studied to be a nun, and she named all of her daughter’s kids with biblical names. People who know that story call me Alo-wish-list, but I think I’ll stick with Michael. 

I have to laugh, when we say “transitioned” as part of the Black community, it means something different than when we use it in the LGBTQ community.

[Laughing] That’s right! Yes, in this case, I mean passed away. 

So what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a lawyer, for no special reason except maybe from watching too much TV!  To this day I’m like this mad Law & Order, NCIS junkie. I can watch the weekend marathons all day long and not bother to leave the house! 

Well, you didn’t become a lawyer, but you did just about everything else! You got a bachelor of Science in Legal Studies and Pierce College, a Master of Public Administration from Cheyney University, and you completed your doctoral course work in Public Administration from Capella University! And now you’re being honored for your work as an activist. 

I always did well in school, we were expected to. Education wasn’t something that was easily attainable for a lot of those who came before us, so it was a priority. But what really inspired me was that my mom decided to go back to school to get a nursing degree. I’d been doing a lot of advocacy work, but that made me stop and say, “What are you doing?” and led to me going back to school which helped me professionally and allowed me to thrive doing the work that I liked to do. 

When did you move to Philly?

Right after high school, when I was about 17. I’d been talking to my mom who’d had a conversation with my ex-girlfriend. My ex had told her, “I think there’s something going on with him.” My mother didn’t even think of gay as a possibility, so she thought maybe it was drugs! So I had to correct her and let her know that I wasn’t an addict, I was gay. 

She accepted it and shared her experiences of friends and family members who were/are gay and also raised her concerns about how lonely it could be. Where we lived, 95 percent of the people are related to me! And as I said, we were in the country, for fun we’d cut up at church, scare each other in the woods at night, but there weren’t social clubs or other outlets to meet new people. After those conversations I wanted to know more about who I was and how that manifested itself in the world. That couldn’t happen at home, so I moved here. I had an uncle who was a recruiter for the Marines, and he let me stay in his one bedroom apartment rent free. Since he was a military guy it was very spartan. I stayed there for 2 years. That allowed me to get active with various organizations in Philadelphia. 

And to start your own! You were the founder of Colours, the first local nonprofit social service organization by and for people of color in the area. What was the catalyst [laughing] and why the British spelling?

It started as a magazine. AIDS was a monster, a beast during that time. It was unbelievable, for me it was kind of like how people experienced Covid at first, when we didn’t know how it was spread and there was no vaccine, but AIDS was 20 times more powerful, especially for people who looked like me, and socialized like me. It was a very, very, very scary time and there weren’t many resources for us. Especially folks in the country like I was, it’s not like I could have picked up a book to learn about it out there; it wasn’t possible. So we started out as a magazine that got distributed in places around the country and it was successful.

Soon people were saying, “That’s great, but what about the human aspect, that direct contact?” and that’s when we started Colours as an in-person organization. As for the spelling of the name, it wasn’t a British thing. At the time… this is so stupid, at the time, the clothing store, The United Colors of Benetton was the hottest thing out there. They spelled colors the regular way, so we wanted to change it up so that people would remember it. 

I also read that you worked to ensure that gender identity became  protected under the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance back in 2002. Was that under Mayor Street?

Yup. There were some uncomfortable conversations from all sides, even some Democrats at the time who because of their relationships with the church didn’t want to support it. I went to Councilman Frank DiCicco who was Catholic himself, and we put together a coalition. It took about 6 months to make sure we had the language correct and with the help of a lot of people we got it included. We still have a long way to go, but it was a start.

And you also helped to secure funding to launch the LGBT health clinic at the Mazzoni Center and advised the Department of Human Services administrators on policy changes that led to Bethel House, the city’s first LGBT housing facility for queer youth. Phew! 

Yes, at the time Mazzoni was the Philadelphia Community Health Alternatives, and they mostly focused, rightly so at the time, on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. But they weren’t really addressing the full complement of physical health or behavioral and mental health. So we, myself and other members of the Mayor’s LGBT advisory board, decided to try to get money to help them expand. So I went to the mayor and he directed me to the Health Commissioner. I was basically told by the commissioner, “Nope, there’s no funding”. So I responded, “Well, this has already been cleared with the mayor, so it’s not a matter of if we do it, it’s a matter of how.” 

Lots of fights to be had. 

Yes, so much time wasted fighting racism, hate and homophobia when I could have been rubbing the feet of a dying friend, something I did daily or taking care of the people around me. There was a lot of hate directed my way because a young black man had the audacity to speak up and speak out for people who looked like me, or other members of the community who the majority often acts as if they don’t exist.  

Speaking of people that society wants to pretend don’t exist, let’s talk about the work you do now. 

Yes, I’ve always done homeless related work. Years ago there was a story about a young man that the PGN covered, Alfie McCullough. He was one of the Colours kids, as they called themselves, and the brightest light. He used to dance with Rennie Harris Puremovement [theater company], and was beloved by everyone, but he was a young man with housing insecurities. He didn’t talk about it much, and likely because of not having stable housing, he was murdered on 12th Street. It was never solved and since that time, housing and homelessness has been very important to the work that I do. I get to work on it now as the President and COO at SELF, Inc, a legacy organization that provides emergency and permanent supportive housing, case management, mentoring, and other vital services and resources for a lot of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities. Particularly people who have issues with mental health or drug use. 

I’ve been with SELF for 5 years, and I’m happy to say that in that time we’ve doubled our budget, when I came on there was a million dollar deficit, now it’s zero, we don’t owe anyone a cent. We’ve gone from about 90 employees to 145 with about 30 positions open. And we’ve moved the focus from emergency housing to permanent housing. That’s the solution for so many things; health care, education, and employment are all things that are difficult to maintain without permanent housing. We fight every minute of every chance we get to fight for Black & Brown and LGBTQ people who continually bear the brunt of the discrimination that leads to housing issues. For trans individuals looking for equitable housing, it’s just criminal. 

For sure. Let’s switch over to some random questions. What is the last song you sang in public? 

I was at a friend’s house and she has a karaoke machine, and we each had to choose a song from different genres of music. A happy, happy song or a sad ballad, so I chose the song, “I’m Catching Hell” from Natalie Cole. No one else knew it, but I know every single word. It starts out with her talking, and everyone was saying, “Why are you talking, what until it’s time to sing, but the dialog is the fun part! “Tonight, I just want to talk to the ladies…”

Something that annoys you?

When people want to touch my hair. 

Favorite childhood snack?

Oh my gosh, cookies. And there’s a story with that. One summer, my dad, Ned, challenged me saying that I would never last working at the barn where they  farmed tobacco. I took him up on it and did it for two weeks. I got a nice little paycheck of $112, and when it was time for us to go back to school my mother suggested that I use the money to buy myself something nice. But little did she know, I and my sisters and brothers had already spent the money. Anytime my parents went out we bought and gorged on cookies, the kind of cookies you baked, cookies that you’d freeze, lemon cookies, chocolate chip cookies, anything we could get our hands on. So now and to this day, the family calls me the (in a Cookie monster voice) The COOKIE Man. And I don’t even like them like that much anymore.                                             

What’s the most memorable historic event for you?

The Million Man March. I went to both, but the first one was just… it was otherworldly, to see so many men who traveled from all over the world to be there. Men from all different walks of life. And no one stormed the capital, it was peaceful and controlled. I went there with the International Federation of Black Prides, which organized folks to come in from around the world. Of course, there are things that are problematic with Minister Farrakhan, and we were concerned about experiencing homophobia or disdain, but none of that showed up. We really had a chance to listen to each other and talk about the world that we wanted to see. We also got to learn about the monuments that surrounded us and who built them. The fact that these giant tributes to freedom were built by slaves! I was not aware of that, I was not aware. 

Important history. But back to your history, are you single or partnered? I always ask in case the person wants to give a shout out to their S.O. 

[Laughing] I’m single. But I’ll give a shout out to him if he’s out there and say, “Come on home!” 

I like it. When you’re not working, what do you do for fun?

I love bead making, particularly Yoruba beads. I’m also a bit of a wild child, my mother calls me ‘The Boy’ because I’m the kid who gives everybody a heart attack. I’m an adrenaline junkie so I’ve been parasailing, bungee jumping, hot air ballooning, I’ve climbed the Pyramids in Mexico, I’ve skydived, anything that stops your heart for a minute so that you get that rush afterwards. 

Let’s wrap up with a favorite motto or saying.

My favorite saying? Awesome sauce! It’s fun and to me it’s a way to uplift a moment. To say, this thing is awesome and has the ability to spread like a great sauce!