A Prophecy Before Our Time: The Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic Opens in 1972: Controversies and Legacies
Guest post Perry Brass.
By 1973, after the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic, the first clinic for gay men on the East Coast founded by Leonard Ebreo, Marc Rabinowitz, and myself, had been operating for a short time, several things became evident to us.
First, the need for “gay health” to be addressed as an issue was huge. Scarily so. A decade later, with the advent of AIDS, history itself would support this. Second, you cannot separate “health” from “public health,” that is the attitudes around what is acceptable to patients, individually and en masse, and what is not. Everything having to do with queer health had a taboo around it, and we were completely aware of this. The good thing about this was that the movement, even at that time, toward what we would call “LGBT Liberation” (we just called it “Gay Liberation” then) was so far ahead of the general public’s fears and hypocrisy, that a fairly evident number of people were willing to put their necks and careers on the line to produce change.
You could not hide things under total shame anymore, even though certain elements of the population were still operating this way.
One of course was the Catholic Church, and we had several Catholic priests who came in as patients. I treated them, and always found this difficult. They were amazingly open about the fact that they were “Brother this,” or “Father that,” while at the same time terrified of being discovered.
I remember one rather portly middle-aged man who kept repeating to me while I tested him for syphilis: “God forbid anybody finds out about this. God forbid anybody knows!”
Being still in my mid-twenties, and not constrained by a lot of reticence, I looked at him and replied, “Well, God forbid I’m ever as scared as you are. Or I wouldn’t be doing this.”
He did not like hearing this, I could tell. Dr. Dan William, an MD who had volunteered to work with us, overheard my remark and took me aside.
“I know you’re trying to be p.c., Perry,” he said. “But please don’t say anything like that to make a patient uncomfortable. He’s really sharing something with you that’s very difficult for him to share. Remember that. And know that it’s an honor for us to have it shared.”
Dan was right, but it was hard for me to hear that, too. I had to become much more tolerant of other people’s fears and emotional reticence than I wanted to be. Like many early gay liberationists, I wanted to blast open the closet doors, but many people were not only not ready for this and were still bent on keeping them as closed as possible. Again, history would bear out that keeping them closed didn’t work. AIDS itself, no matter how you might see it, would not allow that.
About a year after we opened, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the clinic’s early operations came into effect—innocently, certainly. We were approached by a gentlemanly older man (in his late 30s; when you are still in your mid-20s, that’s older) doing research, he said, on hepatitis in a gay population. I think he was doing this at N.Y.U., but he spoke with Dan, then with me and some of the other men involved with the clinic. He had a proposition for us: if we became involved with his research, he could help to fund the clinic, something we desperately needed. All we would have to do would be to hand over a portion of our blood samples to him; he would even supply all the vacu-tainers and needles needed to do this.
Dan was enthusiastic about it: becoming a part of a recognized academic hepatitis study would give the clinic the kind of legitimacy needed to approach other funders, and also, simply, to spread the word among other health providers that we were there and operating. I felt some degree of uneasiness. We had to tell our patients that their blood would be used in the research, but for the most part we were rubber-stamping their agreement; most of the men who came to us were so eager to have STD testing done, in the kind of supportive environment we provided, that they quickly assented.
Also this researcher (whose name I’d rather not say) who was so polished and courtly (and, frankly, rather seductively only partially in his own closet—as were huge numbers of academic men at that point), made us feel that Big Daddy himself had now stepped onto the scene. In other words, he was going to be the recognized “adult” we were looking for, after scrambling around in the early months of the clinic, trying to figure out how to do everything. Dan, as one of the few professionals involved with us, had been feeling alone. So he quickly gravitated toward this proposal.
It went on for several years. Eventually Merck, “big pharma” itself, became involved, and it did lead to the development of the first vaccines against Hepatitis A and B. But, as in other difficult health situations, waves of rumors and conspiracy theories gathered about. Namely, that community-based organizations like our Gay Men’s Health Project (and, to be fair, in several years other cities such as Washington, DC, L.A., and of course San Francisco had their own similar clinics) were “feeding” gay men toward Merck and other big drug companies, who were now using them as guinea pigs for their own hepatitis vaccine research—and that some of these vaccines contained earlier, unknown transmissions of HIV itself. It is hard to put these rumors/theories into any kind of reality context, because they also hinge on other theories of HIV or AIDS (for instance, that what became known as HIV itself arrived in various forms besides the one originally traced to African simian AIDS), so personally speaking I cannot argue for or against them. But some people used these rumors to vilify the Health Project Clinic as being, simply enough, “opportunist.”
I felt sad about that, that the energies and idealism of the three men who had started the clinic, as well as the people who worked after us to keep it going, would be seen this way. Perhaps it was inevitable, part of the history itself of so many public-health centered institutions. But it’s hard not to talk about what became a long-range hepatitis project, because it did put our clinic “on the map,” one way or another.
Lenny Ebreo only stayed with the clinic he had created for about eight months. The creeping “professionalism” of the clinic, through Dan and other MDs and nurses who joined us, bothered him too much. Just as Dan had taken me aside and told me I needed to change my attitude, he took Lenny aside too many times until Lenny walked out. Lenny did not want to be told the proper way to act and speak in a medical environment. We had nervous, still stuck-in-the-closet patients who appeared with a haughty “Now you’ll just do what I want!” attitude, and Lenny would hiss back at them.
Dan broiled at this. He stressed that professionalism had to prevail above all.
Lenny countered: “Professionalism did not create this clinic. We did!”
After Lenny resigned, Marc, Dan, and I were left to direct the clinic’s regular operations. I felt at a loss; Lenny had been such a source of passion and vitality to us. He never thought in negatives, only in positive directions. But he was always looking for a change; it was in his nature. Every time I saw him there was another one coming up. He was going to move to French Canada, become a doctor, find a lover, find another lover, become a veterinarian, become a lawyer, get more into S & M, get out of S & M, become more Jewish, become less Jewish, get into psychoanalysis, get out of it. I felt that each time I saw him, Lenny seemed more bitter, disillusioned, and broken-hearted. It was really sad; he eventually became angry at me too, because I did not share his bitterness with the gay world: its flightiness, its lack of commitment. In truth, I had come from such a broken family in the Deep South that I had no illusions to rip apart about my brothers in the queer world. This irked Lenny terribly: why couldn’t I see things his way? Other friends left him as well, and he became more isolated.
Finally he vanished. All sorts of rumors gathered about him: that he had disappeared to Canada, or medical school, or law school. I continued at the clinic, but it was really starting to work nicely by itself. With the funding from the hepatitis project, we could afford more polish to the operations. Now professionals actually sought to join us, and a regular rotation of volunteers worked smoothly. After many clinic evenings, Dan, some of the workers, and I would pile into in his small car, drop off the test materials at the Health Department, then have a late dinner together in Chinatown. I got to know several new men this way, working together on something that had a genuine, close intimacy involved with it.
But I also began to miss my other life, my creative life. I wasn’t painting or writing enough. I’d been going to NYU to finish a degree in Art Education, and I finally stopped having the time or heart for my clinic work. Almost two years after the three of us started the “project,” I told Dan that I was leaving. “I feel deserted now,” he said sadly. But Marc Rabinowitz stayed, and continued with the clinic for more than a decade afterward.
The clinic did “morph.” It was amazingly successful. It became very professional and joined forces with the older, very “counter-cultural” St. Mark’s Clinic to move to larger quarters on Sheridan Square, where it was able to treat as well as diagnose. Even as a breakdown in gay health began to loom higher on the horizon, the original clinic had several remarkable triumphs that we instituted from its inception. First, we strongly recommended the use of condoms, fifteen years before the general spread of the AIDS epidemic; second we strongly believed that information about all aspects of gay health must not be withheld, either by health professionals or commercial sex establishments. We went into the baths and bars to hand out our leaflets and flyers. As I said in the second of those blogs, we began testing for sexually transmitted diseases in the baths, an unheard of idea at the time.
Thirdly, and perhaps most controversial, we became involved in the fight against hepatitis, but no matter how you might feel about that work, it did lead the way for actual patient populations to become involved with vital health research. This happened later in important AIDS studies, so I feel proud that the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic pioneered this.
When the Gay and Lesbian Community Center on 13th Street opened up, the clinic morphed once more, into the Community Health Project. It was no longer “Gay Men’s,” but open to everyone. It renamed itself the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, named for the AIDS activist Michael Callen and the lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde, losing any connection with the first clinic in the basement on Eleventh Street. By this time, I’d also lost most connections to it myself. Marc Rabinowitz died of HIV complications in 1989. At his memorial service at the Center, his mother painfully remarked that no one from the Clinic had attended it, even after Marc had worked there for so long and had been one of its founders. I couldn’t comment; all I could do was remember what Marc had said when Lenny first brought up the idea of starting the clinic.
Marc blurted out: “I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll do anything I can to keep this clinic going.” He’d been like that the whole span of his working there, and now he was gone.
As for Leonard Ebreo, he resurfaced again, and I’d see him from time to time at a distance, dressed in a suit. He had become a lawyer, but wanted nothing to do with the bitterness of his activist past. One day in the late eighties I was in the tiny Oscar Wilde Bookstore on Christopher Street, and its owner Craig Rodwell came up to me
“Did you know Lenny Ebreo?” he asked.
I told him I did, and he said, “He just passed away. He had a heart attack.” That was all he knew to reveal. I felt terribly saddened by it. Lenny was still young, hardly more than forty; perhaps the attack had been brought on by HIV, but with his deep soulfulness, those earnest, sadly conflicting passions of his that led so painfully to disappointment, it seemed almost fitting that his heart should give way. I was told that he was buried by his family as a Catholic. I wish I could talk to him right now. I would tell him how much good he had done.
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-Lorde 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 17 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.