When Legacy opened its doors 35 years ago (it was called the Montrose Clinic back then), the AIDS epidemic was just beginning, and many in Houston’s LGBT community lived in fear of police harassment and public scorn. Today, medical advances mean people with HIV can live longer lives and same-sex marriage is the legal in the United States.
We sat down with long time Legacy supporter Frank Campisi and Legacy’s Director of Public Health Services Jason Black for a conversation about Legacy, HIV and AIDS: then and now.
Frank Campisi: I’ve been a supporter and fundraiser for Legacy and the Montrose Clinic as long as I can remember. When the clinic opened it was just for testing for STDs. Men wouldn’t take care of themselves, and we wanted to provide testing and education.
Frank Campisi is Legacy’s Ambassador-at-Large. He served on the board for 11 years and is well-known for his philanthropic work for the Assistance Fund, DIFFA, the Diana Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign.
Jason: I came out when I was 15 in the mid-2000s. I was fortunate enough to have a supportive family and a world that was more accepting. That surely wasn’t the case 30 years ago, but but there are some things I envy about that time. Although gay men had a lot of adversity, they had a greater feeling of community than we have now. We don’t have the same level of community because we take our freedoms today for granted. Now we have people who can perform or walk freely down the street dressed in drag. They’re able to go out in public without breaking the law.
As the Director of Public Health Services, Jason Black directs Legacy’s HIV outreach, education and prevention efforts. He was born in 1986, the year HIV was officially named as the virus that causes AIDS.
Frank: At the height of the AIDS epidemic here in Houston, there were times I would go to four of five funerals a week. I stopped counting people at 262. It was just too much for me. I didn’t want to know any more what the number was. It obliterated the gay community for a while.
Jason: I think there are definitely generational differences about how people view HIV and AIDS. I remember a gay friend of my sister’s dying from HIV/AIDS complications when I was five. But when I came out, I didn’t know anything about HIV. And, I know many of the black gay men I came out with didn’t know about HIV either. 30 years after the epidemic, HIV is still a problem, but disproportionately for black gay men.
Frank: I was with some old friends of mine on vacation recently and we talked about how things have changed in the last few decades. It’s historic.
Jason: And what it means to be gay now is a norm. You can’t turn on the TV and there’s not a gay character.
Frank: And you have to think when I was young there was a white bathroom and a black bathroom. Culturally we weren’t aware of why this was. We’ve all had to change our thinking about a lot of things as we grow. We’ve come a long way, and it’s been one heck of a transition!
Jason: But I hope my generation can preserve the history of our community. Too many people gave their lives to bring us to where we are now. We can’t allow that to be lost. We have a generation before us that paved the way for us today.