For Gay Men's Health Crisis, the 'Crisis' Has Never Gone Away

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The current roster of services at Gay Men’s Health Crisis seems almost unimaginable compared to what our six founders may have envisioned when they and their friends gathered in Larry Kramer’s Greenwich Village apartment 37 years ago. They came together on what we now call Founders’ Day — August 11, 1981 — to discuss the crisis they saw unfolding among their friends and partners in New York City. The men in that room knew something massive was starting to happen around them, and they vowed to do something.

Connecting an answering machine to a home phone in 1982 became the first AIDS hotline for people to call to ask questions, seek advice, or just talk to someone about the horrors they were witnessing or experiencing. That service helped to create the foundation of GMHC, the first HIV/AIDS service organization in the world. The hotline is still a cornerstone of GMHC’s offerings today.

Now, as we battle an HIV crisis that is different — yet similar in a few keys ways — from the one our founders faced in 1981, GMHC remains nimble. We continue to evolve with the epidemic, understanding that we not only need to help folks who are living with or vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, but that we must also confront the drivers of the epidemic such as stigma, discrimination, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, lack of housing, mental health and substance use issues, isolation, and so much more. 

In 2016, New York City saw the lowest number of new infections of HIV on record. That’s in large part thanks to GMHC, leadership at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and other key leaders and partners who are working to make inroads against the epidemic. Despite this incredible progress, AIDS isn’t over, and nearly 40,000 Americans are still newly infected with HIV each year. Although ongoing medical research is promising, we don’t yet have enough effective prevention tools, a vaccine against HIV or a cure for AIDS.

Clearly, we know that we still have a lot of unfinished work to do, even while we provide care services, HIV testing, and prevention programs. GMHC annually serves more than 85,000 hot, nutritious meals every year to adults living with HIV and AIDS, and provides more than 30,000 bags of groceries to hundreds of men, women, and families through our Keith Haring Food Pantry. We are the largest provider of HIV prevention and sexual health education in New York City schools, targeting youth ages 14–19, through our partnership with the NYC Department of Education.

In addition to focusing on youth, GMHC ensures that long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS are not forgotten and have access to services that meet their needs through our Terry Brenneis Hub for Long-Term Survivors. We also provide legal assistance to people whose civil rights, jobs, and homes are jeopardized because of their HIV and/or immigration status.

As many communities face perpetual trials in today’s political climate, we are actively working on the city, state, and federal levels to advocate for public policies that connect to funding for programs and increased affordability of, and access to, lifesaving medications and treatment.

In the spirit of our six founders, living and deceased, our commitment to activism — particularly with a goal to end AIDS at epidemic levels by 2020 — has not wavered. Our work is infused with their experiences of courageous and, at times, daunting activism. We connect to two of our founders on a consistent basis, sharing with them about successes and challenges, and listening to them for their thoughts and support. They are critically important family members starting from the first meeting in 1981. GMHC’s Founders’ Day is about our never-ending love and gratitude for them — and about us fulfilling the mission they committed to that day in Larry Kramer’s living room.

KELSEY LOUIE is the CEO of GMHC. Follow him on Twitter @KelseyLouieGMHC.

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