How a Hotline Grew Into a Formidable Force in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

With a little creativity and a lot of hard work, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is making progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Mar 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah B. Weir is a freelance writer, editor, and television producer. She also contributes to the weekly advice column Ask a Mom (Who's Not Your Mom) for HelloGiggles. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and kids.

In the early ’80s, San Francisco was at the forefront of the looming AIDS epidemic. The mysterious and deadly condition was quickly linked to gay men, catapulting the city’s gay community into crisis. To help their neighbors figure out what was happening, a handful of people, armed only with the few facts they had but an abundance of emotional support, started the first HIV/AIDS hotline in the country. Even before the number was published, the phone rang off the hook.

“People were hearing about a ‘rare cancer,’ and they were scared,” says Josie Larimer, events associate at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the organization that grew out of that hotline.

Originally just an information resource, the SFAF expanded to testing, treatment, support groups, public forums, and advocating for policy. In 2013 alone, the organization provided more than 15,000 free HIV and STI tests, treated more than 5,000 STIs, and identified 60 percent of new infections in the city.

The big focus this year for SFAF is rebranding the HIV/AIDS conversation around health and wellness. “We grew up with this idea that it was a death sentence,” says Andrew Hattori, SFAF’s director of communications. “But luckily, we’ve come to a place where people can live long and happy lives.”

A key to shifting perceptions about HIV is overcoming stigma. According to a report by the World Health Organization, fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against is still the top reason people don’t get tested, hide their status, and fail to take antiretroviral drugs. Larimer calls SFAF a “judgment-free zone” that puts an end to the shame.

One way the organization gets people talking and overcoming stigma is by participating in Dining Out For Life. Sponsored by Subaru, the April 30 event invites restaurants across the city to send proceeds from meals to benefit organizations like SFAF.

“The event raises awareness in the minds of those who haven’t been personally affected or touched in some way by AIDS,” says volunteer ambassador Chip McAllister. It has been a hit in the Bay Area for 15 years. “I’m proud to say last year was our biggest ever,” says Larimer, with $70,000 raised for SFAF.

Another effort to help bring the HIV/AIDS conversation to the forefront is SFAF’s mobile testing van, which takes its message to the streets. The van, which was recently featured on the HBO show Looking, offers free rapid HIV testing and counseling in a way that feels less scary and sterile than a clinic. “People walk by, see the van, are curious,” says Hattori. “It reminds them to get tested, and they start talking about the issues organically.”

Positive Force, the SFAF support group for newly diagnosed men, has also been a game changer. T.J. Lee, the program’s manager, was diagnosed with HIV in 2000. “My doctor was scared because my viral load was high, but if I take my medication, I stay healthy,” he says. In his free time, he’s an avid cyclist and a trainer for AIDS/Lifecycle, a fund-raising ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He encourages people to “come out of the closet about their status”—because it can be profoundly isolating and exhausting to keep it a secret—and engage in open dialogue about the disease.

Positive Force’s free weekend retreats also forge transformative connections. “On our most recent weekend, there was one guy who had been diagnosed only a couple of days before, and he was really upset,” Lee says. “When one of the facilitators explained how he had been positive for 20 years, this man collapsed in tears, realizing he could live a healthy life.”

The flip side of the advances that have been made in treating HIV and AIDS is that the younger generation isn’t as engaged in HIV/AIDS awareness or practicing safe sex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that young men ages 13 to 24 are the only demographic that has seen a significant jump in new infections, but many aren’t in treatment.

This spring, SFAF will cut the ribbon at 474Castro, a center for gay and bi men’s health and wellness. You won’t see lab coats or harshly lit exam rooms in this facility; it’s cutting edge but with a warm, comfortable vibe. “The last thing you want is the feeling of standing in a cold hospital line,” says Hattori. “It’s the embodiment of what we are trying to achieve.”

The foundation is hoping that, between its new facility, its mobile testing van, and various outreach programs, it will be able to reduce new HIV infections by 50 percent in 2015. SFAF is off to a strong start. The ultimate goal is to halt completely the spread of the virus in San Francisco, where, only a little more than 30 years ago, there seemed to be no end in sight—only a passionate group of citizens manning a hotline.