Lesbian Services Program, Meeting the Health Needs of Women

As part of Whitman-Walker’s 40th anniversary, officially January 13, 2018, we’re sharing 40 stories to help tell the narrative of the Whitman-Walker community. This week we’re highlighting voices of Whitman-Walker to tell the story of the Lesbian Services Program (LSP).

At the height of the AIDS crisis, much of Whitman-Walker’s focus was on wrap-around HIV care leaving a gap in services for lesbians, bisexuals and queer-identifying women. Lesbian Services worked to close that gap by providing comprehensive and inclusive care for the lesbian, bi, and queer women’s community. Listen along as Amelie Zurn, Joanne Sincero, and Ellen Kahn, share their stories and perspectives of Lesbian Services at Whitman-Walker.

Amelie Zurn – the first LSP director, on the origins of LSP:

“And so, I think about that time there was kind of this hotbed of like, “What is the clinic doing as we mushroom-cloud in HIV and AIDS? How are we treating gay men and lesbians? And are they still important?” and so, in 1990, with conversations starting in ‘89, in 1990 there started to be these very serious conversations about, “Can we reaffirm our commitment as a lesbian and gay health clinic that’s serving, that is also the largest AIDS service providers in the city?” Right?

So, the board made a decision to sort of reaffirm its commitment to lesbian and gay health issues. So, that meant that the Gay Men’s VD Clinic didn’t have to worry about being, you know, sort of a space, and the Gay Men’s Peer Counseling Collective didn’t have to worry about having a space. And so, likewise things like the Lesbian Resource and Counseling Center which had been there for a long time or calls that we got all the time about lesbians choosing children, you know, that we would have occasional workshops on. We would actually have a home. So, Lesbian Services was born out of that re-commitment of the board to create gay and lesbian health programs. So, in 1990, that sort of summer they reaffirmed the origins of the Lesbian Health Program and Lesbian Services specifically.

And sometimes I really wish we had been called a task force, because I think that the mission was two-fold. One was to provide distinct services to lesbian and bisexual women, and later transgender folk. Right? But the other was to sort of push the clinic to really uphold their mission, and to cease and desist on sexist decisions or the ways that patriarchies seeped into Whitman-Walker clinic programming or to make sure that there was space that was safe for women to come to, right? Because the other piece was that 14th Street at that time wasn’t always the safest and greatest place for women to come for health services, because they were – you know, it was before the Metro opened. It was before the Green line opened, and it was like you knew that it was changing, but it didn’t always feel like the safest place for women to come which also, then brought up all of the issues around race, and class, and gender that kind of come in when you have a service organization. Right? So, I kind of wished that we’d been called a task force because I think it would have been much clearer like part of the mission is to sort of keep making sure there’s lesbian visibility at the clinic, and there’s distinct services.”

Joanne Sincero – on volunteering with LSP and Wet, Wild, and Well programs:

Joanne: “There was also a health clinic. It was only maybe every month or so, and I know Barbara Lewis was one of the providers there. I sort of helped with that, and also we had educational programs that were taking care of your sexual health. We had something called Wet, Wild, and Well that we would do. We did a couple of those, but that was one of the things that LSP did.”

Interviewer: “What was the average Wet, Wild, and Well session like?”

Joanne: “It was like bringing props and dildos and lube and really just getting people comfortable talking about sexuality and talking about terms and trying to stay safe and what you could do, which was kind of on the heels of – it was quite a bit after that – when people were being encouraged to use speculums and look at their vagina and, “Whoa, look what’s down there,” and that kind of stuff. I’m sure it built on that kind of freedom.

I think part of it was so much was going towards HIV – necessarily so – but it was kind of easy for lesbian health to just get erased and be kind of invisible. I think that’s kind of an ongoing challenge that’s never really gone away. It was good that there was that and there was some attention to lesbian health. Also, at the time it wasn’t as easy to find providers that we were sure were going to be not only able to understand your needs, but just not be outright hostile, or you would feel that this wasn’t going to be a good situation.”

Ellen Kahn – a former LSP director, on growing the program:

“But the real sort of, you know, passion for me was Lesbian Services and being able to kind of grow that program to – you know, to move that program into a really nice space where we could have something that really felt like a drop-in center or community center for the women’s community. We got to, I think, really do cutting-edge work to include trans guys in our system of care and our services and to try to be more accessible to women of color, women of different identities but who are part of the queer women’s diaspora, if you will. It was really just like, probably seven of the best years of my life for sure.

I also became a parent during that time and what I really love about having been at Lesbian Services is that one of the programs that launched at Lesbian Services before I was a director was – I believe it was called Choosing Children and it was a program that provided support groups and some educational resources for lesbians who were interested in becoming parents. And it was still a relatively new thing, you know, back then, and as someone who was interested in becoming a parent and started to go down that path but with my partner at the time, I was able to kind of grow the programs at Lesbian Services almost to reflect what I was finding were kind of the unmet needs and opportunities for more programming.”

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