In clinical research and in the ball community, Dr. Stephaun Wallace was a source of wisdom and inspiration

Stephaun E. Wallace, PhD, MS, passed peacefully Saturday morning surrounded by family and loved ones at his family home in Georgia, after a battle with stage 4 lung cancer. A leader in the global fight against HIV and health disparities, he was also a guiding influence in the lives of many individuals.

He was the director of external relations for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center’s (Fred Hutch) HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN). He held faculty appointments at Fred Hutch, the University of Washington and was an affiliate professor Yale. But he was also known in the house and ballroom communities, where he organized events that were educational and affirming. 

Dr. Wallace’s tireless work focused on improving health outcomes for people across lines of race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status, in the U.S. and globally. He was also a mentor and a father figure for many.

“His guidance and mentorship emphasized the importance of peer education and its potential to drive meaningful change,” said Anthony Adero, an HIV activist living in Washington, D.C. “He instilled in me the belief that every individual engaged in this work is inherently valuable and possesses the ability to effect transformative shifts.”

Dr. Wallace was 23 when he co-founded and became director of My Brothaz Keeper, a volunteer non profit focused on HIV and STI prevention among Atlanta’s young, Black, gay, bisexual and queer men. For World AIDS Day 2007, as board chairman of the House of Blahnik, he organized a ball at the Georgia World Congress Center, the first of many balls he staged over the next 15 years.

He entered HIV research when he joined the team at the University of Rochester, in New York state, where he began his advocacy in support of research for biomedical HIV prevention strategies. In 2013, he moved to Seattle to join The Legacy Project, a program at the Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination at Fred Hutch. He later joined the staff of HVTN’s Social and Behavioral Science and Community Engagement Unit. In 2019, he received his PhD. He became HVTN’s director of external relations the following year, when Steven Wakefield, one of his mentors, retired.

Dr. Wallace championed the lives of people in the transgender and non-binary communities, calling out the violence and disparities they experienced. Within the house and ball communities, many called him, “father,” as they looked to him for his steadying presence and mentorship.

“One thing that I will always remember was his commitment to mentor and help others to grow and develop,” said HIV researcher Christopher Hucks-Ortiz. “Having come up through the trenches as he did, Stephaun was very intentional about supporting others in their journey. Many of them called him ‘Dad,’ because of the role that he played in their lives. His influence will continue because of the work of these sons and daughters.”

His work caught the attention of Bill Gates, who featured Dr. Wallace in Gates’ “Heroes in the Field” blog series. “Everday experiences of racism and xenophobia contribute to people's hesitancy and skepticism,” Dr. Wallace says in the video. “But if they're hesitant if they're skeptical, this is an opportunity to provide information and to build a relationship. How do we demystify this idea of vaccines, this idea of science? We do it by translating the science and communicating it plainly.” 

In a 2021 webinar about health inequities experienced by people living with HIV during the COVID-19 pandemic hosted by POSITIVELY AWARE, he observed how any improvements in health outcomes will require historic and systemic change.

“What we’re really talking about here are systems and how all of these systems sort of work or play together,” he said. “Many of these systems are not just contemporary, they have historical standings and originations, and they continue to exist and permeate our communities now, and these things continue to work in opposition to healthcare.

“When I think about how we need to change the healthcare system, we need to dig deep,” he added. “As we’re digging deep and doing the work to transform systems, we also simultaneously need to envision what this new system is going to be. We can’t leave it up to the same folks who designed this system to design the new system. We’ll find ourselves back in the same place.”

Dr. Wallace leaves behind a brother, Jeremiah, a sister, Krystal, and a large and extended chosen family with children from many houses, including The House of Elite, which he reopened in 2004, The House of Blahnik and The House of Marc Jacobs, which he founded in 2021.

photo by Connor O’Shaughnessy-Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center