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Lessons From GMHC's Founders


Contact: Cub Barrett | 212-367-1561 |
Krishna Stone I 212-367-1016 I

Lessons From GMHC’s Founders
By Kelsey Louie, GMHC CEO
August 12, 2019

Show up. Form a plan. Speak out. Repeat.

And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

We take a lot of lessons from our Founders’ Day, August 11, 1981—the day that six gay men, along with their friends, gathered in Larry Kramer’s Greenwich Village apartment to confront a growing crisis. In those confusing early days, the people gathered there knew that something deadly was stalking their community. And they wanted to act.

They were scared, but they were also determined. They shared information. They listened. They debated. They made a plan. They put that plan into action.

And they helped change the world. GMHC was officially launched less than six months later, in January 1982, with its first service: a volunteer-run hotline designed to help answer questions about the growing epidemic. Soon after, GMHC began advocating for the rights of those living with and affected by what would become known as HIV and AIDS. And we did so loudly.

Nearly 40 years later, the modes of organizing are different, just as the AIDS epidemic and GMHC’s service offerings have evolved. But the sentiment and drive remain the same for us: There’s nothing more powerful than getting people together, deciding on a common goal, making a plan to achieve that goal, and speaking out.

In those early days, the immediate goal was clear: With virtually no official information about what was really happening, the community wanted to gather and share as much crowd-sourced information as possible. That’s why the Hotline—a core service that GMHC still offers—was launched.

Today, we face different kinds of challenges, but those lessons help give us direction as we adapt. In an era in which so many of us are awash in data, how do we get the right information to the right people? How do we target and serve the populations most at-risk of HIV infection, including men who have sex with men (MSM), women of color, and transgender individuals? How do we convince newly diagnosed people to immediately see a doctor, or people who tests negative at our Testing Center to go on PrEP? How do we let long-term survivors—people of our founders’ generation, as well as many who came after—know that GMHC is here for them, and that we have resources specific to their needs?

And in an era characterized by mass shootings, constant political gamesmanship, and short attention spans, how do we remind Americans that there are still nearly 40,000 new HIV infections in this country every single year?

We show up. We form a plan. And we speak out.

We show up by looking at data together and talking about it. This helps us understand who our clients are, who else we should be targeting, and where the epidemic is headed. It helps us determine what our services should be, as well as where gaps may exist.

We form and execute a plan from that data. For example, in 2018, recognizing that more than half of all people living with HIV in the United States are age 50 and over, we knew we had to do something—and, as the world’s first AIDS service organization, were in a position to make a tremendous impact. We launched the Terry Brenneis Hub for Long-Term Survivors and entered into a strategic partnership with ACRIA, long known for its studies on older adults and HIV. We’re using those studies to help us—and many other organizations—provide the best possible services for this population. We’re also partnering with funders interested in this kind of work.

We speak out and make ourselves heard. We publish and share our studies. We attend conferences and moderate panels. We put out statements. We’re active on social media. We place targeted ads. We work with elected officials to advocate for stronger policies that help our clients on the city, state, and federal levels (and are working with our clients to help them be their own best advocates).

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we repeat. We come to work every day and show up for each other, starting new discussions, making new plans, and never resting on our laurels.

In short, like our six amazing founders pledged, we won’t rest until we end the AIDS epidemic. And while much has happened between August 1981 and August 2019—immense progress, far too much illness and death, hope, despair, compassion, acceptance, rejection, and everything in between—we proudly carry on the legacy of the people who not only realized they needed to change the world, but knew that they could.

So we salute Nathan Fain, Larry Kramer, Larry Mass, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, Edmund White, and the countless people who made GMHC what it is today. And as we commemorate Founders’ Day, we remember those who are no longer a physical part of this battle, keeping their spirits alive as we tackle our next challenge.

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About Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC)
Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) is the world's first HIV/AIDS service organization. GMHC is on the front lines providing services to over 13,000 people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Programs include: testing, prevention, nutrition, legal, supportive housing, mental health and substance use services. GMHC also advocates for stronger public policies at the local, state and federal levels with the goal of ending AIDS as an epidemic. For more information, visit