A career as an AIDS advocate began nearly two decades ago for Tracy L. Welsh (’91) when she joined the legal team at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) as a staff attorney.
“In the early years, a lot of my work focused on defending the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in family cases, housing cases, disability matters, and confidentiality issues,” she says. “HIV discrimination was at the heart of many of these cases.”
Welsh joined GMHC in 1995, after completing a federal clerkship and working several years as an elder law attorney with Bronx Legal Services. By 1997 she had moved on to a leadership position in the HIV Advocacy Unit at Queens Legal Services. Five years later, she was heading up the HIV Law Project (HLP) as executive director, taking on broad policy issues, in addition to providing legal services for clients. During her 11-year tenure, HLP took on more than 10,000 legal cases for people living with HIV/AIDS. Welsh ultimately spearheaded a merger between her organization and Housing Works, preserving its 25-year legacy.
In September, Welsh was appointed senior director of finance, operations, and planning at Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). Her move to SAGE connects back to her first attorney position working with low-income elders and was driven, in part, by her desire to continue supporting the growing population of older adults living with HIV/AIDS.
Early in her career, Welsh’s client work included many HIV-related guardianship cases. Some involved child protective agencies removing children, and courts refusing to reunite them with HIV-positive parents. Sometimes family members were involved in custody battles with parents. To be sure, it was challenging work.
“The legal victories—of which there were many—never outweighed the losses: the loss of dignity, the loss of family, and ultimately the premature loss of life,” says Welsh.
Consider “James,” an HIV-positive father caring for two young children by himself after his wife died of AIDS. At a time of ignorance about the disease, James found himself and his family increasingly isolated from social support. He sought legal counsel to plan for his children’s care and custody, eventually turning to the state.
When James’s health deteriorated, the state child welfare agency removed his children, eliminating any contact with the father.
Welsh fought the agency’s action but could not regain James’s physical custody; however, she did gain for him extensive visitation rights throughout the last few months of his life.
“This case was heartbreaking,” says Welsh, who now has children of her own. “I find the courage of James in planning for his kids admirable, despite the risks of state over-involvement.”
Welsh herself was raised by a single mother. When Welsh was 16 years old, her mother died. Many people stepped up to provide her with support and guidance. Their generosity, she says, broadened her perception of the world and her desire to help others.
Having worked as a paralegal to make ends meet during college, Welsh decided on law school but with social justice at the forefront, and with supportive professors and students who cared deeply about what they were doing. CUNY Law School was the perfect fit.
What continues to fuel Welsh’s passion for justice is a fundamental belief that all people have equal worth as human beings.
“Despite apparent differences—including race, sexual orientation, gender, and religious affiliations—fundamentally we are all the same, desiring a way to meet our basic needs: connection with others and ultimately happiness,” says Welsh. “Justice is a powerful tool for ensuring all people have a way to fulfill their desires as human beings.”
– Paul Lin