The AIDS Activist and the Banker

A Q&A with brothers Jes and Peter Staley. One is now CEO of Barclays. The other changed the world.
July 21, 2016, 10:30 AM UTC
Barclays CEO Jes Staley (above left) became a supporter of his brother Peter’s mission. (Photograph by Patrick James Miller for Fortune)

The AIDS Activist and the Banker

A Q&A with brothers Jes and Peter Staley. One is now CEO of Barclays. The other changed the world.

Peter Staley had just been diagnosed as HIV-positive when he recognized he had another challenge to confront: He needed to tell his older brother James—better known as Jes (for his initials)—that he was gay and break the news of what was, at the time, effectively a death sentence. This was 1985. Peter was 24. He had recently followed 28-year-old Jes, whom Peter considered seriously homophobic, into a promising career at J.P. Morgan (JPM).

So began two brothers’ parallel and extraordinary journeys to leadership. Jes, now 59, rose rapidly through the ranks of J.P. Morgan and post-merger JPMorgan Chase (No. 55 on this year’s Global 500), heading asset management and, later, its investment bank. Peter, now 55, was the first U.S.-government-bond trader on Wall Street to come out as gay and HIV-positive. As a leader of ACT UP, he became one of America’s most famous—or, to some, infamous—LGBT and AIDS activists.

During the height of the ’90s AIDS crisis, Peter was arrested 10 times—including once for protesting Big Pharma’s HIV/AIDS drug prices by chaining himself to the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange and tossing fake $100 bills that said fuck your profiteering. Says Peter today: “If Jes ever had any qualms at J.P. Morgan—I did become one of the most hated people on Wall Street after I shut down the New York Stock Exchange—I never heard it.”

As for Jes, he says his brother enabled him to see “firsthand the greatest human courage that I’ve personally ever witnessed” and to understand the importance of diversity in the workplace. In fact, as J.P. Morgan emerged as a pioneer on LGBT rights, Jes was behind the scenes helping lead that charge. He was at the company—and viewed by many as a candidate to succeed CEO Jamie Dimon—until he left in 2013 after losing favor with Dimon. Last December, British-based banking giant Barclays (BCS) tapped Jes to be its new CEO. Recently, both brothers sat down together for a conversation with Fortune. This is their first media interview about their relationship and the lessons they learned on their paths to leadership.


Fortune: Peter, let’s go back to the fall of 1985. You were trading bonds at J.P. Morgan. You start feeling lousy, and your colds lingered. What happened then?

Peter Staley: Well, two years into the job I watched, with a secret boyfriend by my side, the very first TV movie on HIV/AIDS, called An Early Frost. I had a bad cold, and the actor dying of AIDS in this movie, Aidan Quinn, had PCP pneumonia and was coughing a lot. My boyfriend ribbed me and said, “You sound just like him,” with my cough. I said, “Okay, okay, I’ll go to the doctor.” I discovered I was HIV-positive.

You were not only HIV-positive. You were diagnosed with AIDS-related complex.

Peter: Right.

Which is different from AIDS or the same?

Peter: It’s different. It’s a category that isn’t used any more, but it was meant for people who were kind of pre-AIDS, who were immunosuppressed. The CDC later changed the definition to say anybody who falls below 200 CD4 cells has an AIDS diagnosis. I was at 107 in 1987, 1988. And when you were under 200 CD4 cells like I was, it generally means you had about two years. I just fought to try to extend that.

Did you believe at the time that you could fight hard enough to extend that, or did you think you had two years?

Peter: I didn’t know. I just knew I was going to fight really hard and not think about the two years too much. I compartmentalized quite effectively.

How did you come to tell your brother about your illness?

Peter: It was within 10 days of the diagnosis. I knew I had to build a support system around me, that I couldn’t do this alone. I went home that Thanksgiving and laid out a plan for coming out to my family.

This is Thanksgiving of 1985.

Peter: That’s right. I decided to speak to them one at a time. I started with who I thought would be easiest to tell—who could get used to it—and then worked up to who I thought was going to be the hardest. I thought my mother would be the hardest, so she got the last spot. But Jes got the second-to-last.

THE STALEYS ON DECK: Jes, sitting, with Peter in front of him, along with older brother Chris and sister Janet in the British Virgin Islands in the early 1970s.Courtesy of the Staley Family

Jes, this came as a surprise to you?

Jes Staley: Well, the HIV diagnosis for sure came as a total surprise. Back then, it was a death notice. And so that was shocking because I’d never had someone that close to our family or part of our immediate family ever come close to something as dangerous and terrifying as this. And then, when Peter and I talked, he did say he thought I was the most homophobic person in the family. I think in part it was because we were both on Wall Street, and Wall Street at that time, you know—the one minority group that was free game for everybody was the homosexual community. So you could use a derogatory term and that wasn’t a problem. He was living on a bond desk, so …

Peter: I heard the F-word about 20 times a day.

Jes: I remember, you could use the word “faggot” and whatnot all the way up to, really, 2000, 2001. But when he came out of the closet, it wasn’t a quiet, hushed exit from the closet. It was an explosion of energy and being forthright and in your face. It was a great opportunity for me to try to make up for the homophobia that he saw in me, to try to embrace what Peter was up against. And then it was years of watching someone show stunning levels of courage against insurmountable odds. Just to watch Peter go through that whole process and what his friends were going through, it was the beginning of a long march that changed my life, and I think changed the world in some ways.

So, Peter, after you told your family you were HIV-positive in 1985, what were you thinking about work?

Peter: Everybody in the family said, “What can we do?” Jes’s first assignment [laughs] was what do I do about J.P. Morgan? Should I tell someone? How do we handle this? Because I want to keep living my life. I don’t want to quit work. He said, “I think I know somebody that we can talk to in confidence.” He’d had a boss in Brazil, William Oullin, who was gay and was fairly high up in the bank. And Jes put me in touch. William’s advice was for me to stay quiet about it.

Because …?

Peter: The bank wasn’t ready. It would have been explosive. And I might have lost my job. So I did a crazy year where I was a closeted bond trader by day and an AIDS activist by night. When I went to demonstrations, I would hold the placard up to my face so I wouldn’t be on the national news. I became the head of fundraising, as a way to help without getting in the news. Eventually that dual life cost me, and my CD4 count crashed. I realized the clock was ticking. So I walked into my boss’s office one morning and spilled the beans and said, “I’m going on disability right now. This is my last day here, and I’m a full-time AIDS activist starting tomorrow.”


Diverging Paths

  • 1979: Jes graduates from Bowdoin; joins J.P. Morgan.
  • 1983: Peter graduates from Oberlin; joins JPM.
  • 1985: Peter is diagnosed as HIV-positive.
  • 1989: Peter chains himself to NYSE balcony to protest the price of AIDS drug AZT.
  • 1991: Jes heads JPM’s global equity business. Peter formed TAG (Treatment Action Group) to work with drug companies and speed AIDS research.
  • 2000: Jes becomes co-head of JPM’s private bank. Peter builds AIDSmeds to help the ill find treatment.
  • 2001: Jes adds asset management to his port­folio; pushes JPM to fund LGBT rights.
  • 2013: Jes joins BlueMountain Capital. Peter featured in Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.
  • 2015: Jes named CEO of Barclays.

Jes, Peter became known as a person with AIDS who wanted to change the system and carried out his activism as theater via stunts not so dissimilar from the activism we’re seeing today. At the time, you were rising at J.P. Morgan. What were you thinking as you watched Peter, and how much were you talking with him about it?

Jes: A lot. I’d come back from Brazil, and I was one of the guys running J.P. Morgan’s equities desk. Peter called me up, and he said, “Are you working tomorrow?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I can’t tell you what, but just be around the desk tomorrow morning.” That’s when Peter got himself and three friends onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and for the first time in the history of the NYSE shut it down as a protest to Burroughs Wellcome and the price of [AIDS drug] AZT. I remember I was on the desk, and they suspended trading. I said, “That’s my brother doing that!” So that was fun.

You were on the balcony of the exchange.

Peter: Yeah. We had a chain to handcuff ourselves to the banister so it would take them a while to get us out of there. We all had marine foghorns to drown out the opening bell. We had a big banner …

… that said SELL WELLCOME

Peter: … and we had fake $100 bills that said FUCK YOUR PROFITEERING on the back [laughs]. That got the traders a little riled up. And we threw those out. This was in homage to Abbie Hoffman, who [in 1967] was the only other activist to do an action on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Wellcome dropped the price of AZT.

Peter: We were on the cover of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and they dropped the price of the drug 20% three days later.

Jes: You got dragged off to jail—one of the many times that happened. On one level, to interrupt the New York Stock Exchange is not something you want to encourage. On another level, Peter was fighting for his life and fighting for the lives of people with HIV. I love my brother, so I saw it first through the prism of a brother and second as a social issue. As I got into it, I realized the courage—to get up every single day to fight what was a death sentence—is quite something. He was moving the country.

Peter: He’s underselling his own role a bit. I was bouncing ACT UP strategy off Jes, off my father, off my sister, Janet—off the whole family. And they were giving me feedback on ACT UP strategy.

RESTRAINED—BUT NOT SILENT: Peter, detained at what was then Astra Pharmaceuticals in 1989, one of 10 times he has been arrested.Courtesy of the Staley Family

They never said, “You’re going too far”?

Peter: No, never.

You did a lot of other stuff. You stormed the offices of Burroughs Wellcome.

Jes: The better one was the condom over [Sen.] Jesse Helms’s house. That was creative.

Peter, was that your idea?

Peter: Yes. Jesse Helms was one of our greatest enemies. He had been for years proposing amendments to bills in Congress that specifically targeted people living with HIV. He was the author of the immigration ban. The U.S. was the first country to impose a ban on people entering the U.S. who were HIV-positive. And every country on the globe followed suit. So he caused amazing harm. And he would rail on the floor of the Senate against homosexuals and our sinning, and that we deserved to die.

I came up with an idea of an action that wouldn’t offend his Senate colleagues that much—something they could laugh at as well. I call it kind of a Jon Stewart style of activism, where you make your opponent the butt of everybody’s joke. And that
diminishes their power. I’m very proud of the fact that there were no Helms AIDS amendments from that point forward.

That was 1991. Jes, did Peter go too far?

Jes: No, I was a big supporter. I started to get more involved in ACT UP. I met Larry Kramer a number of times. That was also the very beginning where even at J.P. Morgan, we began to have a thaw, and I’d get to know this gay man or that gay man. You started to see people becoming more comfortable with their sexual orientation. Peter and the people of ACT UP were changing the world in deeply profound ways.

Peter: I started hearing in the late ’90s that J.P. Morgan had become one of the leaders on LGBT rights in the workplace. And I was hearing from gay people working on Wall Street that Jes had a lot to do with that.

Jes, when did your leadership on LGBT issues begin in earnest?

Jes: The real inflection point was, I think, 2001, when J.P. Morgan and Chase merged. I was running Morgan’s private bank and had some ability to write a check [and commit] a little bit of civil disobedience. Without the bank fully knowing, we became the first corporate entity in the country to donate money to GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network]. GLSEN is the LGBT group that helps high school kids come out of the closet. Part of the population thought that GLSEN was going into high schools to recruit kids to choose the option of homosexuality. So that was a flash point. And up until Morgan’s private bank, they could not get any corporation to write them a check.


Q: Are we likely to see a cure in your lifetime?

PETER: Well, it depends on what you mean by cure. There are actually two categories. Most of us think in the terms of what’s called a sterilizing cure, something that would get HIV completely removed from a person. But HIV is a retrovirus, which genetically integrates itself into your cells, and not just one type of cell. It genetically integrates into multiple types of cells in the human body: into brain cells, into cells that line the gut, into primarily CD4 cells but other immune cells as well. Extracting it from all those cells is something that’s a little beyond science right now, although gene therapy might get us there.

Then there’s what’s called a functional cure, which would be something that would teach the immune system to keep HIV at bay on its own—so I wouldn’t have to take daily anti­retrovirals the rest of my life. A vaccine that prevents HIV may do that exact same thing for people with the virus. It may be a therapeutic vaccine and thus a functional cure. I would get vaccinated and then never have to take another drug the rest of my life. The government is working on that. That, I expect to see in my lifetime. I’m in a group now that’s pushing Francis Collins, head of the NIH, and still working with [National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief] Tony Fauci. We’re pushing them to do the best research possible, so I expect to see a functional cure and a vaccine in my lifetime.

When you look today at modern American populist movements, from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street, and the masses of disenfranchised people emerging as we decide who our next President will be, what do you think of the brand of activism that you’re seeing now?

Peter: Black Lives Matter blows me away. I think it’s one of the greatest movements of our age. Their track record is extraordinary. They’re not letting us off the hook.

Jes, there’s a populist movement right now against the big banks. Is there anything you’ve learned from Peter that allows you to think more strategically about dealing with that?

Jes: What I learned from Peter is more critical thinking and trying to be balanced in making an assessment of what’s going on. I don’t think anyone today doesn’t acknowledge that we’ve got a very significant income inequality challenge in this country. I also believe the banks have a lot to atone for and have lost their way to a certain extent. The flip side, obviously, is I work with thousands of bankers who I think are incredibly gracious people with great character and values. If I can have a legacy that helped Wall Street in small increments regain some of the trust that was lost in the last decade, that would be a great legacy to be part of.

Peter, 20 years ago, when an effective “cocktail” of anti-retroviral drugs became available, you realized, “Maybe I’ll have a long life,” right?

Peter: I had that hard transition that everybody who survived that long had to go through: “Oh, my God, we’ve been living year to year, never looking beyond a year or two. And now we have to return to the real world.” I didn’t know what to do next. I was burnt out from over 10 years of AIDS activism. And I was frightened of returning to the real world and a career.

In 2004, when crystal meth hit the gay community, Peter, you actually were addicted for a time.

Peter: Yeah. Sadly, a lot of us who went through that transition after 1996, a lot of gay men with HIV, we hit really hard times, and some of us fell into addiction. I was one of them.

How long was that period?

Peter: It was about 2½ years. In many ways, it was the hardest thing I did in my life, even harder than surviving the plague years. Jes was one of the first ones I told when I got on the other side.

You didn’t tell Jes until afterward?

Peter: I didn’t tell anybody until I started getting some clean time.

And how did you get clean?

Peter: I started with a 12-step program, and then an amazing outpatient program in New York City finally got me clean. But it took a long time. Not easy.

What’s the lesson from that?

Peter: The lesson? Addiction is a disease, and if I were black, I’d be in jail. And we as a country need to really look at this issue and focus on it from a purely public health perspective. I had the financial resources for that outpatient program. Everybody needs that access. Or I would have ended up dead.

You’re still very involved in the AIDS cause. Is it still a crisis?

Peter: It is. I’m working to get the U.S. to finish what we started in the ’80s. The epidemic still rages on. We still have annual infections in the U.S. that are about where they were in the 1990s. The crisis is not over—37 million still infected worldwide, 2 million become infected every year, and 1.2 million die every year. But unlike the ’80s and ’90s, we have the tools to move those numbers in the right—they are moving in the right direction.

The tools are antiretroviral therapy, and we actually have a drug now that prevents HIV infections if you take it every day. We’ve learned that if we get more people on treatment, we actually lower the number of people who get infected. All we have to do is use these tools, put a little money upfront, and you slowly wind down the epidemic. Right now I’m trying to interject HIV/AIDS into the presidential campaign.

Jes, last December, you took charge of 129,000 employees at a bank that has a good record in supporting HIV/AIDS programs and LGBT causes. Do you think, “I need to do more”?

Jes: I don’t think any social issue is static. We can always do better, whether it’s gender issues or LGBT issues or sexual orientation issues or race issues.

Peter: I keep pushing him to push that envelope constantly. I really love that he’s spoken up about income inequality, and that he’s a Democrat and that we often support the same candidates. I joke with him. I said, “When the revolution comes …”

Jes: We’ll hide out in his house [laughter].

Peter: He’ll get a phone call from me saying, “Get the family out!” And I’ll be calling from the headquarters of the revolution.

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A version of this article appears in the August 1, 2016 issue of Fortune.