Our Journeys to Whitman-Walker

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 listen as members of the Whitman-Walker community share their first experiences and impressions of the organization. Listen below to hear clients, volunteers, and employees —Strawberry, Joanne, Joe, Carl and Ellen—share their personal journey to Whitman-Walker over the years.

Derrick “Strawberry” Cox – Googling for “gay doctors” and finding Max Robinson Center:

Strawberry: “So, my initial place I was going to was Max Robinson, and that’s where I met Lynsay. I heard about Whitman-Walker, because of course they had the posters and everything there. And it was like, that’s the motherhood of the place of everything. But I never actually been there. And well it was called, everybody called it Whitman-Walker, but it was also called Elizabeth Taylor. And I was like well you know what? So, I didn’t know the two was the same, so I actually went there. And I only went there because Lynsay wasn’t there one day at Max Robinson. They said she was over there at the Whitman-Walker site. And I was like, Okay well this is my first time there. But when I initially wanted to go there, what I heard about it was it was just a place for people with HIV, or whatever the case was. And at the time, I didn’t have it yet. So, it was just like, Well I don’t have HIV, but I’m going to go see my doctor. So, I was just like, you know I ain’t got nothing to do with that part. So, I went there, and when I went there, it was very welcoming. Like literally everyone spoke to the people behind the counter, to the people sitting in the waiting room. And like the nurse that came out, she came out with such a big smile on her face. And when she was calling people names, so it was just like they made them feel welcome. And I was like, ‘Oh!’ Because I mean I didn’t think of it as a place for people with HIV. But if it was, I was like, ‘Oh they make you feel so welcome here. I know that’s right.’ But I was like, ‘But I’m here to see my doctor. I’m not really worried about anything else.’

I was like… but it really didn’t – I didn’t think too much on it. Like when I heard that it was a place for people with HIV, I didn’t think too much of it. But then like along the way, then I started to figure out the like the bad stigma behind what people are saying about Whitman-Walker or Max Robinson, or any certain type of clinic. So, then I was just like, oh okay. But yeah, I initially heard from Whitman-Walker and Max Robinson, from Miss Lynsay, and Adisa.”

Interviewer: “And how do you find Max Robinson Center?”

Strawberry: So, I just Googled ‘gay doctors.’ Like I was like, okay. So, I wanted to go to… because I was like I want to have one of my own doctors. So, I was like not necessarily my doctor didn’t have to be gay, I just wanted to go to a place where gay people go to. And I was just like, gay doctor and whatever. You know, like I was Googling places, and I was like gay doctor, gay places. I wasn’t getting the wording right, because you know a lot of porn and stripper stuff was coming up. And I was like, ‘Okay.’ I had to finally put in, I was like okay, I was like ‘prescriptions for gay clients’ and stuff like that. So, I was just like making up stuff. And then Max Robinson came up, and then I saw… I didn’t see a rainbow. But I saw the, it was like red, green, red, yellow, green, blue. I was like, well thats four colors. That’s enough for me. I’ll check it out. So, I went to Max Robinson, and then that’s where I met Adisa. And he had this wonderful personality. I thought he was gay, and I was like, ‘Oh he cute,’ or whatever. But, no he got a wife, and well today he got a wife and a child. I was like, ‘Oh yeah boy!’ But, yeah, he made me feel very welcome. He made me feel calm about being there. He was checking on me the whole time. Like I was sitting in the waiting room, and he was like, ‘You good?’. I was like, ‘yeah.’ I don’t know why I got nervous when everybody came in the door. It was such a huge, older crowd that was coming into Max Robinson. And it was just like, where are the young people at?

So, but that’s where I initially met the nurses there, and Adisa. Then I met Lynsay, and we just built this conversation there. Like she didn’t rush me like with the other doctor. She took her time. She asked me questions. And we just built a relationship from right there, and it was like, ‘Okay, well I know I can trust you girl.’ And like we laughed about stuff, and everything. Like, I just felt real comfortable with her. And it was like, I didn’t feel no type of judgment in her eyes when I told her certain things. Because like I said, I’m truthfully blind and sometimes I could get a little detailed oriented without necessarily meaning to. I just like when I tell a story, I like for you to be able to like not only hear the story, but see it as I’m telling it. But, I ain’t feel no judgment from her eyes or nothing. And I just felt real comfortable. And I was like, ‘This is my doctor. This is my doctor. I love her.’”

Joanne Sincero – On starting at Whitman-Walker as a Lesbian Services Program Volunteer:

Joanne: “I first became known to Whitman-Walker; I was a volunteer with the lesbian services program. Myself and this other person; we had a lending library and we were able to get donations from Lambda Rising and [Lammas] to donate books for this library, which was actually kind of big. Then, people could take them out. This was probably early ’90s.

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 [Lesbian Services Program] 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.”

Interviewer: “When did you transition from volunteering with Whitman-Walker to actually working there?”

Joanne: “I started working there not until 1994. I had worked for a number of years in a number of mental health group homes, which I actually kind of liked. I had a different friend who was at the clinic at the time and had known that there was this position in the day treatment program for people living with HIV.

To come to Whitman-Walker was like a dream. It was just on so many levels. Just to be in a queer positive work environment. Now I have to keep reminding myself, ‘Oh yeah, you know,’ because I’ve been there so long it’s kind of like you take it for granted.

I applied without a second thought even though I took a pay cut, I think, to go there. When I first started, the whole division was being reorganized. So, literally my first day the director was fired and somebody else was going. There were two of us left to run the whole thing, so it was really a hard beginning.

We still had clients, but they were realizing, I think, the model was not what they wanted it to be. So, they had to grow it. In order to do that, they had to sort of break it down and change some of the criteria. So, the beginning was hard.”

Joe Izzo – A 32-year employee on his start with the Clinic:

Joe: “…I had actually gone to Whitman-Walker for treatment of STIs myself because I had picked up gonorrhea once or twice I think and, you know, that was the place to go if you were a gay man.”

Interviewer: “What was your first experience like at Whitman-Walker?”

Joe: “Oh, I mean, this is a long time ago, so, people were, they were friendly. They were nice. They were nonjudgmental. They were just, you know, medical professionals that said, ‘Okay. Here we’re going to take some blood or we’re going to do a swab of your urethra or your rectum and so forth or your throat and that’s that and you’ll come back a week from now and we’ll give you the results.’ It was very straightforward and simple. No shame. There was no shame associated with it or anything. It was very well done I thought.”

Interviewer: “So, what led you to start, what brought you to work there?”

Joe: “So, after I had completed my work at Howard University, I had specialized in geriatric mental health. The reason why I wanted to work with elderly people was because I saw elderly LGBT folks as a completely underserved and ignored population or subpopulation of the gay community and I also knew as a baby boomer that there was going to be an elder boom coming as I got older and my cohorts in the baby boom generation got older and I said there is nothing available for LGBT elders. So, I actually wanted to start housing programs. You know, senior programs for LGBT seniors.

So, in my last semester at Howard, I started sending out job applications or responding to job openings at various day senior programs, nursing homes, and, what was the other, senior day programs, okay, that were social programs, and had meals and stuff like that. So, put out about 15 applications from March until May of that year, that was ’86. I wasn’t getting anything back. Nobody was contacting me. So, this one day I happened to be reading the Blade and, in those times, this was before the internet and everything else, classified ads took up pages in the Blade, you know, for job openings, this, that, and the other thing, and announcements, and Whitman-Walker had a few announcements about positions open in their HIV-AIDS prevention program.

So, it was an educational program to different subpopulations. So, the first one that I applied for was a program that worked with gay men to educate them about safer sex. I applied for the job, got called in for an interview, and didn’t get selected. They actually hired a lesbian to run the program. I was like, ‘That’s kind of strange, okay.’ So, then they had another announcement a couple of weeks later. They were looking for a director of the HIV/AIDS education program. Well, what the hell. I’ve got two master’s degrees now. Maybe I can get in as a director. So, I applied. Came in for a second interview and wasn’t hired. So, I just figured well, this is hopeless. In the meantime, I wound up getting, because one of my sub-specializations, clinical sub-specializations was working with people with alcoholism and drug addiction. I had done a year’s internship at the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism at NIH working with chronic alcoholics. So, I applied for a job with an organization called Circle Treatment Center which was right down there at Washington Circle near George Washington University and I got hired for that and she was paying $25 an hour which was massive amounts of money in those days, but it was only part-time. Still, I made, I worked 10 hours a week and I made 250 a week. That was good money then.

So, I was doing that for a few months right after I finished at Howard and then all of a sudden, I get a phone call out of the blue. This is after I had done the two interviews at Whitman-Walker. I get a phone call from, I don’t remember whom, saying they were from Whitman-Walker. They had decided after the two interviews with me that they really wanted to hire me, so they created a job and it was a job to do HIV prevention work with high-risk populations including, but not limited to, people who were IV drug users, male, female, and transgender prostitutes, the recently incarcerated who had just been released, as well as homeless people. I said, “Oh my God. That’s interesting.” So, again, I went for an interview for that position. I got hired.

And then I started working in what was then called the Sunnye Sherman AIDS education and prevention program and myself and Billy S. Jones coordinated the program together. He pretty much and his trained volunteers that he worked with worked primarily with the female prostitutes and IV drug users. My program worked, my part of the program worked largely with gay and transgender prostitutes, the homeless, and the recently incarcerated, as well as the incarcerated. So, during the daytime from about 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning until about 6:00 at night I was giving seminars at jails, prisons, and detention centers, community organizations and schools, and to homeless shelters; both to the staff in the prisons and the homeless shelters, as well as the residents of both of those places. Then I’d got and have dinner and then I’d go out with my trained volunteers at night from 10:00 until 1:00 in the morning to the streets where we hooked up with the prostitutes and gave them HIV prevention literature, free condoms, bottles of bleach if they were IV drug users, and so forth, and I was working anywhere from 10 to 14 hours a day. It was insane.

But the epidemic was growing by leaps and bounds and we all felt that sort of pressure and compulsion to try to do something about it because by then, and this is ’86, ’86, ’88, ’89, there was still nothing available. AZT or Retrovir didn’t become available until ‘88/’89 and it had such severe side effects, people were developing anemia and so forth and often dying from the anemia because they had no red blood count, until they discovered you didn’t have to give 1600 milligrams of it a day. You could get by with 300 milligrams of it and that would contain the virus, prevent it from replicating.

So, yeah. Those were, those were tough years because people were dying left, right, and center and everybody was trying to do whatever they could to help people say you’ve got to practice safe sex…”

Carl Corbin – Parking far away from Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center:

Carl: “I can’t remember now who the guy was or anything – but he said, ‘I am going to a place called Whitman-Walker,’ and it’s down on Fourteenth Street. It’s in the Elizabeth Taylor Building or whatever.

I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to do the same thing because I don’t want to stay up here in this medical facility.’ So, the first time I went down to Elizabeth Taylor’s building I parked my car quite a distance from the building. I looked all around just to make sure nobody there knew me or anything, and I literally almost went running into the building. I didn’t run, but I went in the building and I told them that I was unemployed and I was HIV-positive. I told them I had AIDS, plain and simple, and I needed insurance.”

Interviewer:“What year was this?”

Carl:Oh gosh; I can’t remember the year. It was so long ago; it was quite a few years back, but I can’t remember.”

Interviewer: “Would you say the 2000s? Before the 2000s?”

Carl:No, it was in the 2000s.”

Interviewer: “Okay.”

Carl:“So, I had a very, very nice guy. I went in Whitman-Walker and I asked them – I literally told them I didn’t have no insurance and I wasn’t working and that I had AIDS and that I needed to try to get insurance. The guy that worked with me – I can’t remember his name – was as good as gold.

They put me in a room with him and he signed me up for Medicaid or Medicare, or whatever, and he personally even called me here at home a couple of times about different things, and whatever. I was very pleased from day one inside. I just had to get myself together to literally say, ‘I’m in a gay place.’

Then he signed me up with Dr. Martins. Dr. Martins ran all the tests and actually after the tests came back he said, you are HIV-positive; you don’t have full-blown AIDS. You’re just HIV-positive. There’s a big difference in that. He said, ‘Your CD4 count is non-detectible,’ and all this and that. I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ I had never heard about nothing like that. Dr. Brown literally sat there and explained everything to me and he checked my medicine.”

Interviewer: Dr. Martins or Dr. Brown?

Carl:I’m sorry, Dr. Martins. He checked my medicine and all. I think he changed some of the medicine that Dr. Brown had me on, or something like that. He had me come back in like two weeks to see how it was working because he had to get my system situated, or whatever. Dr. Martins just started working on me and literally from that day – and here it is 2017 – I am still living and I am still non-detectible. That is what makes me so proud and happy – it’s been 30-some years of being non-detectible – because all my friends are gone from AIDS. I mean, I literally was seeing them go, two of them sometimes a day back in the ’80s and ’90s. But thank the Lord, I am still here.”

Ellen Kahn – Continuing her AIDS service work from Philadelphia to Washington, DC:

Interviewer: “And working at Action AIDS did the name Whitman-Walker ever come up?”

Ellen:Yes. So, once I got a little bit more into direct services – so, I was at Action AIDS for five years. I moved pretty quickly into a case management role and then I worked there full-time while I earned my graduate degree, and as I was kind of getting more integrated into HIV service delivery either through going to conferences or talking with peers around the country or reading about emerging best practices or what other organizations are doing, Whitman-Walker was one of the maybe three or four AIDS service organizations whose name I recognized and really was kind of known as one of the larger, more effective organizations.”

Interviewer:And how did you make the transition to Whitman-Walker?”

Ellen:Okay, so this is what happened. In 1993 my then-partner, Julie, got a job offer here in DC to come and be the news director at WPFW, and I was in the last couple months of my graduate degree and we decided together that she would take the job and that, you know, I’d come down on the weekends but once I got my degree I’d move here. We’d start all over and you know, start a whole new chapter in our lives in our mid-latish 20s. I guess it was latish 20s by then. Twenty-seven or eight or something like that. So, we moved down here, and I was very sure that I would get hired at Whitman-Walker. I didn’t even think twice about it. I had an outstanding resume in HIV services and you know, over five years and that was a lot at the time, and you know, a graduate degree. And so, I sent my resume to Whitman-Walker right away and I didn’t hear anything. And I was a little – I wondered why, and so I kept sending my resume. And after a few weeks passed and I didn’t even get an interview, I called my former boss, Ennis, who was the executive director of Action AIDS and who was, you know, Jim Graham’s peer. Jim Graham at the time was the executive director of Whitman-Walker.

And I said, ‘You know, I’m wondering if you could maybe put in a good word for me.’ So, she immediately picked up the phone, called Jim Graham and told him that he really ought to look for my resume, that I’m outstanding, something like that, and I think within another day I had a call. Had an interview. I remember the interview. I remember the two people who interviewed me. I was hired, I think, on the spot, it seems, and yeah. And the rest is history [laughs].”

Interviewer: “And what did you do when you got to Whitman-Walker?”

Ellen:So, I was a case manager. I had a shared office facing 14th Street over what is now Doi Moi. 14th and S, that’s where the case management services were. It’s where the [Bill Austin] day treatment center was and the housing office and the legal – I mean, all the direct services were in that building at the time. And I shared an office with Mike Hildebrandt, who had been there a bit. He was also a case manager. He specialized in working with clients who were homeless because he had done homeless services, and so he – sharing an office with Mike was interesting because most of his clients were homeless or at risk or formerly homeless and he would often – so, you know, a lot of the clients who would come to see him in this office we shared were struggling a little bit with things like their personal hygiene, as is common with people who are homeless, or might literally come in and just sit on his chair and fall asleep for three hours and that sort of thing. And I was like, ‘This is an interesting workplace. This is going to be kind of interesting.’

I loved Mike. He was wonderful, and he – he got lung cancer a couple years into our relationship working together and it was just really tragic. But what a great guy, and I learned a lot from him about compassion and empathy. So, anyway, I jumped right into the job. I had probably 50-ish clients before you could say – you know, before you could sneeze just because there was so much need. I mean, the constant intakes of new clients, just incredible needs and challenges, but I worked with an amazing team. I remember, you know, maybe there were seven or so case managers at the time. A couple of them are folks I’m still really close to. We went through a very important part of our lives together. A lot of really challenging times, a lot of loss – tremendous loss. You know, it was a time when there were still funerals every week and just feeling like you were always pushing a rock up a hill and using – we tried to find humor in as much as we could, you know. But it was – I mean, it was grueling. It was, you know, finding housing, finding access to medical care, getting people medical supplies they needed at home, meal programs, medical transportation, helping people navigate another round of family rejection. You know, just really, really hard stuff.”

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