March 11, 1989 was a seminal moment in the history of the AIDS epidemic. The New York Times ran a frontpage article about Alison Gertz, the daughter of a prominent Manhattan real estate family, with the headline “Unlikely AIDS Sufferer’s Message: Even You Can Get It.”
Gertz herself would later appear on numerous TV shows sharing her personal testimonial about contracting HIV from her boyfriend at age 16. A two-hour television movie, “Something To Live For: The Alison Gertz Story,” brought her story into the homes of people across the country and sparked nearly 200,000 calls to a federal AIDS informational hotline. Gertz’s activism is credited for spurring policymakers and AIDS researchers to devote more resources and attention to the threat of HIV to women and shattering the myth that HIV was a “gay plague.”
Gertz’s legacy endured after she died in 1992 through a program started by her family called Love Heals that has brought HIV prevention education to more than 700,000 youth in schools throughout metro New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County.
Education remains a vital component of GMHC’s comprehensive approach to ending the AIDS epidemic. Through the Love Heals program, speakers, mostly consisting of people living with HIV/AIDS, share their personal stories with student groups with the goals of raising awareness about HIV and providing information about ways to protect themselves from infection. At one point, Love Heals had 30 speakers who spoke to student groups at more than 200 schools including colleges and universities.
Love Heals merged with ACRIA, which became one of GMHC’s programs in 2018. Today, Love Heals is led by Doug Hill, director of GMHC’s youth initiatives and condom distribution program. As a self-described educator, activist, and social worker, Hill developed a passion for sexual reproductive health and youth sex education out of his own experience living with HIV.
“After being diagnosed as a young person myself, I knew there was work to do and I need to be a part of it,” said Hill. “The story that I share with young people is that HIV is not a death sentence. There is life after HIV, but you still do not want to get it. You need to protect yourself:”
Hill originally served as a consultant to Love Heals and subsequently joined GMHC as a full-time staff member. In educating youth about safer sex practices, Hill aims to empower youth to take control over their sexual health. By sharing his personal journey with HIV, he also aims to destigmatize the disease.
“Our program leaves a mark,” said Hill. “Sharing personal stories is a powerful experience and generates impact. People remember us and the information that we share.”
Through Love Heals, Hill and his colleagues help students understand that HIV is a risk to anyone who engages in sexual behavior. Key to the salience of this message is the use of straight-forward language. “From our early days, we weren’t going to leave out bodily fluids in our presentations and we used clear wording,” said Hill. “We got pushback, but we stayed true to our goal of giving accurate information to educate people, including parents who may not have believed kids were sexually active.”
Due to shifting funder priorities, Love Heals has had to scale back its Speakers Bureau in recent years. “After almost 30 years, Love Heals still has a strong appeal and a great reputation among New York City schools,” said Hill. “We’re still receiving a lot of requests for speakers, but we need more funding to do this work.”
Most recently, Hill gave a virtual presentation to students at Harvest Collegiate High School near Union Square in Manhattan. Milyoung Cho, a teacher at the school, described his presentation “as the most comprehensive informative age-appropriate HIV prevention workshop ever!”
A new focus is on condom distribution at pharmacies, restaurants, beauty salons, and barber shops in New York City neighborhoods where HIV prevalence rates remain persistently high. GMHC has also shifted to doing outreach and education programs virtually using social media marketing. “It’s important to keep a bridge to young people and the general public with our work at GMHC,” said Hill.
Hill remains a strong advocate for HIV youth education programs and the Love Heals approach. During COVID, he has continued to give presentations to student groups via Zoom. “Education is key to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” he said.
Photo caption: Doug Hill delivers a presentation on HIV prevention to a school group.