Part II — 1980s/90s: the AIDS crisis
By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
All organizations have peaks and valleys, and the 45-year timeline of the San Diego LGBT Community Center (The Center), has not been immune. As the 1970s came to a close, many of the founding members had moved on to other projects, and the reason behind the creation of The Center had become a bit nebulous.
In 1980, The Center had moved from its B Street location to the Hillcrest “gay neighborhood,” at the corner of Fifth and Robinson avenues behind the Brass Rail, San Diego’s oldest LGBT bar.
While it was well ensconced in the community, it is reported that the space was run-down, and for nearly a decade, The Center saw a high turnover of executive directors, with five different individuals holding the position between 1978 and 1988.
It was in this landscape that Scott Fulkerson, who served as the executive director from 1988 until 1992, began his work. I had the opportunity to sit down with Fulkerson, and Jeffery Leiphart, who developed and administrated the AIDS Response Program at The Center from 1991 to 1997, to talk about the journey of bringing The Center back to a more engaging organization.
“It seemed like The Center was suffering from somewhat of an identity crisis,” Fulkerson recalled. “This was 1988, when we had HIV/AIDS, but no readily available [or accessible] treatment. There was more fear in the community than hope, and you can’t sustain a movement on fear.”
While the terrain was uncertain, little did Fulkerson know that there were a few windfalls, in both relationships and funding opportunities, on the horizon.
The first was a call from Benjamin Dillingham, who was serving as chief of staff to San Diego’s mayor at that time, Maureen O’Connor. There was a push to see city politics become more active in the LGBT community, and this relationship led to increased partnerships and opportunities to advocate for LGBT rights. It is worth noting that during Fulkerson’s tenure, San Diego became one of the first cities to pass an LGBT anti-discrimination policy, dubbed the “Human Dignity” bill.
Rounding out the end of 1988 was a surprise call on behalf of San Diego philanthropist Joan Kroc, offering an opportunity to apply for a “holiday gift grant.” Instructed to detail and submit the needs and budget of The Center, Fulkerson anticipated the gift to be a couple thousand dollars, at the most. To his great delight, The Center received a check for over $30,000, enough to cover the bulk of the 1989 budget.
“I can’t even describe that moment,” Fulkerson said. “It was as though an organization on life support had been given a chance to start over. Going into my second year, with such a weight lifted from my shoulders, it was such a relief.”
As the AIDS crisis continued, The Center began to establish their more integral role in supporting a community, where leaders were being lost daily to the disease. In 1989, The Center was part of a collaborative group of HIV service organizations that were given a $250,000 grant from the city to parcel out among them; and in 1990, the federally-funded Ryan White CARE (comprehensive AIDS resources emergency) Act was passed, which provided additional funding for services.
It was in 1991 that Jeff Leiphart came on board to develop the HIV service model, called the AIDS Response Program, which would eventually become “Behavioral Health Services,” as we know the program today.
Having developed much of his model — which treated one’s immunity through the alleviation of stressors — in San Francisco, as the first antiviral medications were tested and slowly being released to the public, Leiphart was able to put these ideas into practice in San Diego.
“Practitioners know that mental and psychological distress impacts a person’s immune function,” Leiphart explained. “We were now dealing with a population whose immune systems were decimated, without the benefit of comprehensive HIV treatment. Addressing the clients’ mental and psychological wellbeing begins a cascade, which positively impacts their will to socialize, engage in healthier habits, and more.
“After the program began taking off, I remember getting a call from Dr. Bob Smith, of the Robert Smith Medical Group,” Leiphart continued. “[Smith, who was] one of the primary HIV providers at that time, let me know that our shared clients were showing measurable positive health outcomes, as compared to those who were not receiving such services.”
One of the cornerstones of this effort was a project called LIFE, which stood for “learning immune function enhancement,” and went on to serve as an international model for the application of psychosocial services to those living with HIV.
“We wanted to find a name that was the polar opposite of AIDS [acquired immune deficiency syndrome],” Leiphart recalled. “And LIFE was the perfect name that flew in the face of the fear and death associated with AIDS.”
It was also around this time that The Center moved across Hillcrest to the southwest corner of Normal Street and Blaine Avenue (now named Harvey Milk Street) in 1992, where it would stay for the bulk of the 1990s. One of the last projects overseen by Fulkerson, the irony of the location still makes him chuckle.
“I have the distinction of having opened a gay and lesbian center on Normal Street, in the 1990s, when being LGBT was viewed as anything but ‘normal,’” he said, laughing. “How many folks can make that claim?”
While Fulkerson transitioned out, Leiphart remained, and a new volunteer began her time at The Center. Cheli Mohamed, who would go on to become a staff member from 1995 to 2000, recently joined me to give her perspective of what the late 1990s were like.
“One of the primary initiatives that I worked with was YAP — the Young Adult Program — which provided support for youth who were coming out,” Mohamed explained. “Many of the volunteers were teachers, who were really putting their careers at risk, as there were no legal protections for them. I was in college and I worked with a 16-year-old young man, Brian Mullen, who would bus two hours into Hillcrest to volunteer with me.”
Like many of the women in the community, Mohamed also became deeply engaged in the HIV/AIDS community, as a huge leadership vacuum was created with the death of so many gay men through AIDS-related complications. In addition to working with the AIDS Response Program, she also recalls the start of HARP (Holistic AIDS Response Program), which employed non-Western healing measures, such as crystal therapy, massage and Reiki.
“I remember walking down the hallways and smelling the sage and massage oils, but also how important it was for individuals living with AIDS to receive that human touch,” she said. “You have to remember, in those days you could see the effects [lesions] on a person’s body from wasting to Kaposi Sarcoma, and so many were afraid to even give them a hug.”
AIDS was arguably both a thief of so many of our community’s brightest and also the force that galvanized the LGBT community to leave behind separation, and stand behind one cause: ending HIV.
It became, and remains, one of the centerpieces of the San Diego LGBT Community Center’s broad array of services. Until we see the day of “no new infections,” these programs will link those infected, affected, and at-risk for HIV, to the resources needed for living a healthier life.
— Ian D. Morton is the director of operations at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.