A Prophecy Before Our Time: The Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic Opens in 1972, Part Two: A Wasted Opportunity
Lenny Ebreo, Marc Rabinowitz, and I were thrilled about the forum that took place at Washington Square Methodist Church in 1972. Because of the forum, Lenny now had some connection with the New York City Department of Public Health, which after John Lindsey's administration had been re-organized around local community health centers. He began to fixate on the idea of community health. If we could get our community healthy, in mind and body, it would genuinely come together. He revealed a bombshell idea: we'd open our own gay health clinic in the Village, as an adjunct of the Chelsea Clinic, which dated to the thirties and was set up to aid local working class families in the neighborhood.
The clinic would be community-based and gay run, not run by doctors or other health "professionals" who placed "information barriers" between themselves and the patients. We, politically-conscious gay men, would both use the facility and direct it. Our model would be clinics set up by women all over the country as a means of fighting a male-dominated medical establishment. Still, there was no actual model for this, although we were told that San Francisco already had such a clinic.
So our clinic would be the first gay clinic on the East Coast.
Lenny went to the Health Department and the Chelsea Clinic with his idea. Their reaction was to shut the door in his face with a run of bureaucratic questions: What professionals would staff the clinic, fund it, oversee it? Who would make sure that confidentiality and other issues were dealt with? Who would be ultimately responsible for it? And, finally, did we have a license to dispense medicine?
(Conversely, they did not ask what was the need for the clinic, could we actually prove the need, and how could we fill it?)
He returned to us, not the least daunted. "We'll get around them. At first we won't dispense medicine or treat. We'll just diagnose. You don't need a license to diagnose." A few days later, almost by magic, a young medical intern named Dan William appeared. He'd heard that we were interested in gay health, and offered to help. Dan was a few years older than I, and just coming out. He was reticent about dealing with his feelings, especially gay ones, and told me confidentially, "If you're having problems, the best way to forget about them is to help someone else. That's why I became a doctor."
Dan appeared contained and controlled; the polar opposite of Lenny, who was romantic and explosive. Lenny was immediately suspicious of him: as a doctor, it would be easy for Dan to take over the clinic, and Lenny did not want that; but with a real doctor in our fold, it was easier to go to the Dept. of Health. They agreed that all we would do was testing. They'd provide the necessary supplies: culture dishes and swabs, Vacutainer needles, bandages, etc. We could drop off the cultures for gonorrhea and the blood tubes for syphilis at a central Dept. of Health station at the end of each clinic session. They sent someone over to the basement to inspect it; he gave us a provisional go-ahead (though not a license in any form) to be a collection station for them.
We started setting the clinic up, getting folding chairs, several tables for intake and drawing blood, and a screen for privacy for performing anal and penile cultures. Lenny insisted that each of us learn all procedures. He wanted the three of us who had started the clinic and would run it, to be able to draw blood and take cultures. I was blood-queasy and fainted at the sight of it, but gritting my teeth learned how to do it and actually became fairly good at it. Lenny had taken a Red Cross course and could draw blood well, and Marc, who decided that he was going to become a nurse, was quickly adept at it.
Lenny named the clinic "The Gay Men's Health Project. We're a continuing project. The clinic is just one aspect of it." I printed up flyers at a peace movement print shop in Soho, and we handed them out on Christopher Street and other side streets in the West Village. A Tuesday in the fall of 1972 was our first evening. The four of us sat around the basement, wondering if anyone was going to show up. A few men nervously came in, then others. Then I walked out the basement and saw that there was a line literally halfway down the block. I almost cried. Men wanted this so much; they were waiting for it, and we'd created it. I went back down, and began doing intake work. Every man was asked his name, and given a number. The number would identify his blood work and cultures; it would be used to post positives and negatives. Once results returned, our job would be to call the men and inform them if they were positive, or they could call us on a phone line shared with the gay switchboard.
We eventually opened our clinic two evenings a week, then three. The success of it was stunning, something the Dept. of Health could not dispute. Very quickly we were dealing with several hundred men a week who came in to be tested, and if found positive were referred to the Chelsea Clinic or their own doctors for treatment. Most important, at the clinic they were treated with sensitivity and respect. We asked for a donation, but no one was turned down for lack of funds. We got men of every race, class background, and political stripe, from ardent gay liberationists, to men who were buried so deep in the closet they gave us ridiculous pseudonyms rather than their own names. During our first year we had many visitors who came down to the basement just to see us and admire what we had done.
One of the most notable was Dr. Howard J. Brown, who in 1966 had been Mayor John Lindsey's first Health Services Administrator, that is, head of the New York City Department of Health, a post that put him in charge of 23 district health centers, and 50,000 city employees. A year later Brown was forced to resign when a tabloid journalist threatened to expose him as a homosexual; Lindsey sadly had to privately accept his resignation. Dr. Brown lived in a town house only a few doors away from our basement. I was impressed with him; he was an older gentleman from small-town Midwest and very courtly. He told us what a wonderful job we were doing: "This is the kind of thing I wish I'd done. Being gay," he said wistfully, "is like having perfect pitch. In my day, we used to say you were 'musical,' or 'enchanted.' Things are changing now; I'm very happy for it."
He gave us a large donation and returned a few times; a year later Howard Brown came out publicly, making front page headlines in the New York Times. That someone in the august profession of medicine could be openly gay garnered a story on every TV station in New York. I wondered if the Gay Men's Health Project Clinic itself had had some connection to his coming out; I was thrilled with it.
Another frequent visitor was Bob Kohler, whom I had known from my involvement with New York's Gay Liberation Front. After G.L.F. folded in 1972, he became night manager of the Club Baths on First Avenue, on the Lower East Side. Bob decided that if he were going to continue to be a gay activist, the place to do it, rightfully, was a bathhouse. He immediately started a collection for us at the counter, and brought us several hundred dollars a month in donations. We brought up the idea that the baths should start dispensing condoms, since we openly advocated for their use as a means of preventing sexually transmitted diseases among gay men.
This in itself was revolutionary—that we would push condoms in a gay environment, when for decades the chief purpose of condoms had been seen as a heterosexual birth control device. A lot of gay men thought they were ridiculous, and had no idea how to use them. With Bob's help, we started going to the Club Baths, which was famous for having a young hip clientele, and giving talks about S.T.D.s, the dangers of them, and how to diagnose them. Then we had another idea: suppose we set up the clinic at the baths once a week? We could take blood samples and do swab-cultures to detect oral and anal gonorrhea, with an already waiting patient population.
Bob checked with the owner of the baths, and he quickly assented. An area was screened off for us to work in. I went to the baths several times with Dan and Marc to help in testing. It was an interesting experience: some men were embarrassed, hiding from us, but no one was hostile and a lot of guys were happy we were there. Eventually having the clinic at the baths become routine, and the New York City Department of Health did not object to it. However, condoms themselves did not catch on; a complete infrastructure for their use, with demonstrations and repeated encouragement, was not there.
I spoke to Bob about it. "I offer them condoms and lube as soon as they walk in, but a lot of guys don't take the condoms. It openly embarrasses them, and I don't know how to get past that."
As AIDS went from rumor to reality, some of the bath houses in New York tried to deal with the emergence of what we used to call "safer sex" right there on the premises. They invited AIDS activists in to stage demonstrations of condom use, and talk about "how to have sex in an epidemic."
But this was not enough for the New York City Department of Health which basically closed all gay bathhouses in New York in 1985, by banning any kind of sexual activity in them. Although some AIDS activists applauded this decision, I felt that doing so was a wasted opportunity. The owners of the bathhouses, wanting to stay open, were more than willing to allow these gay-friendly places to become direct front lines for providing information to a population of men who often were not going to get it any other way: many of them were still in the closet, and as so, would be having anonymous, potentially dangerous sex anyway. At least in a more protective and supportive environment, condoms and the encouragement to use them would be immediately available. I'd seen myself the results of providing knowledge about ST.D.s (as well as the methods for treating them) in an openly gay environment, and how well this worked. So I was saddened to see the Dept. of Health's decision take place.
In 1972, Perry Brass, with three friends, started the Gay Men's Health Project Clinic, in New York's Greenwich Village, the first health facility specifically for gay men on the East Coast, still surviving as the Callen-Lourde Community Health Center. He is featured in All The Way Through Evening, a new documentary about young composers who died from AIDS, and is the author of 16 books, the most recent is King of Angels, a Southern gay Jewish coming-of-age novel set in Savannah, GA, in 1963, the year of John Kennedy's assassination; and previously The Manly Art of Seduction, a how-manual on living life positively and achieving your goals. He can be reached through his website www.perrybrass.com.