Dallas Will Install Street Toppers to Commemorate Late Gay Rights Activist Don Maison | Dallas Observer
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Dallas Will Install Street Toppers to Commemorate Late Gay Rights Activist Don Maison

After Don Maison died this year, City Council members Chad West, Omar Narvaez and Gay Donnell Willis asked for street toppers to remember him.
Don Maison, the longtime gay rights activist and the longest serving president and CEO of AIDS Services of Dallas died at 74 this year after a battle with cancer.
Don Maison, the longtime gay rights activist and the longest serving president and CEO of AIDS Services of Dallas died at 74 this year after a battle with cancer. Photo by Brielle French on Unsplash
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This week, Dallas City Council unanimously approved street toppers honoring Don Maison, the longtime gay rights activist and Dallas lawyer who died in February. Maison was the longest-serving president and CEO of AIDS Services of Dallas, which provides affordable housing and services for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

City Council members Chad West, Omar Narvaez and Gay Donnell Willis proposed the street toppers for Marsalis Avenue between Colorado Boulevard and Sabine Street. They chose this area because it’s near the Hillcrest House, one of the places run by AIDS Services of Dallas that Maison was heavily involved in.

When Maison joined in 1989, the organization wasn’t in the best condition. It had seen a few iterations in the decade before it began operating under its current name.

In 1985, a group of people formed around a man named Phil Gray, a Dallas native who’d recently been diagnosed with AIDS and returned home from California, according to a history recounted on the AIDS Services of Dallas website. By that year, the county had recorded 125 cases and 123 deaths. In Dallas, Gray established the Oak Lawn Mail and Message Service, offering jobs to other people living with AIDS. But, the mail service collapsed when Gray killed himself that decade.

Two other men who knew Gray, Michael Merdian and Darryl Moore, would go on to form the PWA (people with AIDS) Coalition of Dallas, which was dedicated to creating projects maintained by and for people with AIDS. It would later be called AIDS Services of Dallas. In 1987, the group began focusing on housing for people who had lost their homes because of illness or discrimination.

"If I could provide people a place to live that had dignity, a place where they felt loved, then that’s why I was there.” – Don Maison, gay rights activist

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That year, Merdian and Moore purchased an apartment building in North Oak Cliff to house people with AIDS. But, the housing facility hit a roadblock when it was discovered that a $175,000 donation for the project was made by someone accused of embezzling $3.2 million.

The following year, the group bought the Revlon Apartments, a property with 36 units that was badly in need of renovation. To make matters worse, a fire at the Revlon Apartments stalled and increased the price of the project. Around this time, someone reached out to Maison about interviewing to be president and CEO of the organization.

There were about 90 candidates for the position, and Maison didn’t think he had a chance of getting it. He didn’t have any experience in running a nonprofit. One friend told him it was “the dumbest career move” he could make. But, he applied anyway and got the position in 1989, the same year the organization began operating under its current name.

Things were rough in the early days with the organization, Maison recalled for The Dallas Morning News in 2003. “We couldn’t pay the bills, so we kept a very low profile,” Maison said, but he felt he was there for a reason.

He wasn’t going to find a cure for AIDS. “That’s not my talent,” he told the Morning News. “But, if I could provide people a place to live that had dignity, a place where they felt loved, then that’s why I was there.”

Under Maison’s watch, the organization grew. It went from having five full-time employees to 60, and its housing capacity tripled.

AIDS Services of Dallas drew up plans to develop a 64 unit facility on Marsalis Avenue. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved those plans in 1992. It would be called Hillcrest House. It opened the following year and the organization operates the facility in partnership with the Dallas Housing Authority. Now, the street the Hillcrest House sits on will be marked with Maison’s name.
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