This week we’ll hear from Hannah Byrne about her experiences in helping document the role of Whitman-Walker Health in the HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ community in Washington, D.C. for their 40th anniversary
By Hannah Byrne
I joined Whitman-Walker Health on a grant-funded project to collect oral histories on the intersection of HIV/AIDS and Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2017. A grant from the DC Oral History Collaborative provided a foundation for a project which aims to collect stories from the community to tell the Whitman-Walker narrative as they celebrate their 40th anniversary.
Today Whitman-Walker Health is a full-service health center serving the people of greater Washington, D.C. With multiple locations across D.C. that provide medical, dental, and behavioral health, along with legal services, Whitman-Walker’s care is far-reaching and rooted in the desire to provide a safe and inclusive environment for its clients. The emphasis on stigma-free care comes from its origin as a gay men’s STD clinic opened in the basement of a Georgetown church in 1973. It officially opened its doors as Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1978, and in the 1980s became one of the only centers providing care for people living and dying with HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. Historically, Whitman-Walker has served anyone who enters its doors, but has expertise in HIV/AIDS care and the LGBTQ+ community. For Whitman-Walker, its history informs the care it provides today. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, officially January 13, 2018, it wanted to explore that history through the voices of its community in a project titled 40 Stories for 40 years.
Comprised of long and short form interviews, the project’s long interviews are traditionally life oral histories. As members of the community, interviewees’ accounts inevitably overlap with memories of volunteer work, employment, or care with Whitman-Walker. However, as this is a 40th-anniversary project, I am both obligated and compelled to ask what members of the community see for Whitman-Walker in the next forty years and what would they like to change or continue.
Responses to the question of Whitman-Walker’s future over the next forty years vary. Narrators themselves represent the range of the community. The majority of narrators lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in some capacity. Whether as an activist, health-care provider, friend or loved one of someone with AIDS, or a long-term survivor with HIV, the narrators represent a spectrum of this shared community. While they share a sense of community with Whitman-Walker, their experiences and their perspectives on the future of the health center are just as diverse as the community itself. Even as narrators offer well-deserved praise to the health center, they similarly critique the organization. Narrators often share their concerns of representation. Randy Pumphrey the Senior Director of Behavioral Health and a former chaplain at a D.C. hospital at the height of the AIDS epidemic, wants to see long-term survivors supported. Meanwhile, Tony Burns, a black man diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s, would like to see a more diverse medical staff. These critiques are followed by more prominent declarations of appreciation and thanks to the organization.
These responses presented an interesting but common methodological dilemma. How was I, an employee and extension of Whitman-Walker, supposed to foster a space open to criticism of that institution?
One narrator’s response brought that dichotomy to the forefront. Amelie Zurn served as first director of the Lesbian Services Program at Whitman-Walker, a now-defunct department dedicated to women’s health and wellness. Zurn moved to D.C. in the 1980s to work in feminist community organizing and spent her time outside of work participating in direct-action protests with the group Oppression Under Target! Like many other narrators, Zurn’s personal history interconnects with Whitman-Walker. When asked about the health center in the next forty years Zurn responded:
Amelie Zurn: May I ask a clarifying question, Hannah?
Hannah Byrne: Absolutely.
Amelie Zurn: So, I have opinions. They’re not necessarily about where the clinic is going. So, I just, I’m, I’m hesitant, a little hesitant.
Hannah Byrne: You share whatever you feel comfortable sharing.
When reading the transcript and listening to the audio, her reluctance to share her thoughts on the clinic are clear. Her evident apprehension required a statement to reinforce the understanding that this was a safe space to share. Zurn goes on to provide her constructive criticism of Whitman-Walker’s attempts to balance all of the needs it serves: She critiques HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ care, the role of money from “insurance” and “drug companies,” the erasure of lesbian language from the website, and its position of “not leaving anyone behind.”
I am grateful for Zurn’s honesty and willingness to share after her expressed hesitation. As a Whitman-Walker representative, I felt an inherent power differential in every interview. For the project, I must ask community members how they feel about the future of the organization they built, but I have to recognize the role I play. Understanding that place of privilege as a Whitman-Walker employee hopefully allows me to counteract that power by welcoming any commentary on the organization, good or bad.
While celebrating forty years of Whitman-Walker Health, 40 Stories for 40 Years as a project cannot gloss over the criticisms of its community members. Interviews that center on intimate, sometimes traumatic, experiences about the intersection of HIV/AIDS, Whitman-Walker, and the narrator’s personal life necessitate an open and inviting space to share. As an anniversary project, we must also ask those who contributed to Whitman-Walker’s history what they see now as well as what they want for its future. Utilizing oral history to help tell the Whitman-Walker narrative creates a space to accomplish both goals.
Hannah Byrne is a second-year public history graduate student at American University. Interested in the intersection of queer and oral history, she currently works for Whitman-Walker health as the Organizational Archives Assistant.
Photo courtesy of Whitman-Walker Health.