Together We're Better

By Rich Guth, STOP AIDS board president

I first heard of gay men falling mysteriously ill in 1981 in an article in this very paper. I was right out of a Midwest college and living at 21st and Castro. AIDS started touching me more directly in the summer of 1989 when three very close friends died. For the next few years, that was a typical summer. In the midst of all the deaths and misinformation I was invited to a dinner party that had a guest speaker, a peer educator from the STOP AIDS Project. He talked to us about safe sex, taught us how to be safe using some fun props, and got my group of friends to make a commitment to each other to play safe. The next thing I knew, I was volunteering, fundraising, and serving on the organization's board of directors – twice.

The STOP AIDS Project has been an invaluable presence in our community for the past 27 years. Together, we have educated countless gay, bisexual, and trans men about HIV/AIDS and issues relating to their health and well-being. We have offered thousands of HIV tests and distributed several million condoms. We have empowered the newly diagnosed to lead healthy lives and take an active role in preventing new infections. We have worked with black men to overcome the influences of stigma and homophobia. We have given guys like me an outlet to give back to the community through service projects.

When I rejoined the board in 2009, I quickly learned that economic forces beyond our control were necessitating that the project change the way we operate. We probably could have continued independently for a number of years, but at a diminished capacity. And let's be honest, we were never an "independent" agency. From the outset we partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UCSF's AIDS Health Project, San Francisco Department of Public Health, local community fundraising organizations, other AIDS service organizations including the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and countless volunteers. So when discussions about joining forces with San Francisco AIDS Foundation started for the second time, I was open, but cautious.

At STOP AIDS we take our HIV prevention and education, community-based roots, and sex positivity very seriously, and some board members – myself included – were initially worried that those key elements would evaporate at the AIDS foundation. But as talks progressed, we got to know the foundation as it is today, and we found a new and different foundation from even a couple of years ago. (Just check out the racy art displays at Magnet in the Castro, a foundation program.)

I am happy to say we found comrades in new CEO Neil Giuliano, and board President Tom Perrault. With their leadership, the foundation is more locally focused, all-inclusive, and community-based than ever before. Giuliano and Perrault share a vision to grow and expand the prevention services of STOP AIDS and San Francisco AIDS Foundation. The same is true of the other board members I have met and CFO Jon Zimman.

Our two agencies share a common vision for a city in which new HIV infections are rare and all people living with HIV have access to proper treatment and care. At a time when new HIV infections are still on the rise for gay and bisexual men, and when a 20-year-old black man in San Francisco has an 80 percent chance of contracting HIV by the time he turns 60 (a particularly hot issue for me), we have an obligation to make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent new infections and get positive guys into care.

Change is never easy. Moves like this inevitably create anxiety. But throughout this entire process, the staffs and boards of both agencies have been focused on one thing only: the community programs – doing what's best for the people and the city we serve.  

I hope everyone will understand that STOP AIDS Project joining San Francisco AIDS Foundation isn't about one organization or another – it's about maintaining and enhancing vital services for people at risk for or living with HIV in our community. This is about giving us the information we need to stay healthy. This is about radically reducing the number of new HIV infections and making sure all San Franciscans know their HIV status. This is about ending HIV once and for all, in the city where the epidemic first took hold.

You should know that this transition, which will change the lives of people we know and love, could not have happened without some amazing assistance from some volunteers who happen to have law degrees. We owe a debt of gratitude to Jonathan Storper, Mike Moye, and summer intern Geoffrey Rapoport from the law firm of Hanson Bridgett, LLP; Jeffrey Washenko and Sean Michael Doran of Morrison and Foerster; and Robert Mison, my friend and STOP AIDS Project's board treasurer. Each of you went above and beyond the call of duty and we are deeply grateful to have had your help. 

By the way, if you haven't gotten an HIV test in a while, or you're ready to speak with a counselor about your substance use, or you're looking for groups of people who understand you, or you want to volunteer to make a difference, check out the AIDS foundation. With STOP AIDS now on board, including Executive Director Kyriell Noon and his stellar staff, the foundation is more prepared than ever to serve our community with the best possible array of local services. Together we're better.



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