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Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture

The Whitman-Walker Clinic

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Working in gay communities almost a decade before AIDS appeared in the United States, the Whitman-Walker Clinic was at the frontline of AIDS service prevention in the nation’s capital. Established as part of the Washington Free Clinic and originally named the Gay Men’s VD Clinic, it opened in a church basement in 1973 to provide gay men with unbiased sexual health care. The founders renamed it in 1978 in honor of two people who defied gender and sexual norms of the nineteenth century: Walt Whitman, the famous American poet, who made his life with men, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a feminist activist and medical doctor, who dressed exclusively in men’s clothes and was the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War.

As early as 1983, the clinic staffed the first AIDS hotline in the city, and within two years, it opened multiple homes for people with AIDS who sought refuge and care from the larger gay and lesbian community. In addition to providing much-needed care for people with AIDS and access to treatment, Whitman-Walker was at the forefront of designing and distributing safer-sex materials that targeted a range of audiences. Even as the clinic created campaigns to help all kinds of people, it never forgot to attend specifically to the needs of men who had sex with men.