Russell Campbell and his partner moved to Seattle in 1992 because the city was known for its great HIV and AIDS resources. Campbell’s partner was diagnosed with HIV in the late ’80s and succumbed to the virus two years after they arrived in Seattle.
For a time, Campbell worked for the King County Public Health Department’s HIV hotline that was started by Dr. Bob Wood. The more he learned, the more he saw that the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS on Black men was not being portrayed in the media.
Now a deputy director of Fred Hutch HANC (HIV/AIDS Network Coordination), Campbell sees similarities in how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino populations.
“The systems that are in place that impact African American health and care have been in place for many, many years,” said Campbell. “People with Black and brown skin haven’t been treated the same in this country when it comes to health care and research.”
For Campbell and the many others who lived through the AIDS crisis, his work with HIV is deeply personal and remains informed by the losses he has suffered.
“I made a promise to Michael that I would do my part to either help end this or make it so that no one else had to suffer and to live with this shame, with this virus,” Campbell said.
The AIDS crisis turned people like Campbell into activists, organizers and leaders. During the crisis, they advocated for LGBTQ+ rights, supported the ill, and formed community groups that live on and provide vital services today.
Many who lived through the height of the HIV epidemic say Seattle’s lesbian community stepped up in big ways to support gay men during the crisis.
Married 30 years now, Lainy Beitler and Julia Kaplan were both heavily involved in supporting those infected with HIV during that time. Beitler worked with advocacy and mutual aid organizations like ACT UP and the Northwest AIDS Foundation. Meanwhile, Kaplan supported people on her own by delivering groceries or holding someone’s hand so they would not die alone.
Today, Beitler works with an advocacy group for queer seniors. After living through the AIDS crisis, many now struggle with the isolation of the coronavirus quarantine.
“There’s a lot of helpers out there, and a basic need to know that we’re not alone,” said Beitler. “When you have crises of any kind, it brings out the best and the worst of people … I’ve seen more of the helping than the bad stuff.”
Seattle organizations like the People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN), Entre Hermanos, Lifelong and Gay City rose out of the AIDS crisis and have been an integral part of the LGBTQ+ population’s local support network ever since. Now, with many of their clients among those most vulnerable to COVID-19, they’re adapting by providing online support groups and no-contact meal deliveries. Organizations like Gay City even continue to hold clinics for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and HIV screenings while heeding social-distancing measures.
Gay City Executive Director Fred Swanson says he hopes the pandemic will push community organizations to harness technology to reach more people, including those with disabilities and limited mobility.
“We are learning that we can connect and we can get things done in ways that we were forgetting,” said Swanson. “There are all kinds of ways that we can connect and create community.”
The importance of the community bonds formed during the AIDS crisis has endured through the decades.
In 2017, Timothy O’Brien, 70, helped organize a three-day reunion of long-term survivors like himself. They enjoyed meals and presentations together, and O’Brien, project manager of the organization The Reunion Project, says the experience was so positive that they’re hoping to hold another reunion this August.
According to The Reunion Project’s website, its goal is to offer “a safe space for survivors of HIV to “come together and honor the fact that even though they have weathered great adversity and tremendous loss, many have come through the experience with a certain degree of resilience.”
Acknowledging history and looking back is one way to cope with the current crisis, says Campbell. Personally, he looks back at the AIDS crisis and even further back to his parents’ struggles living through the violence of segregation in the U.S. as reminders that we can push through difficult times.
“Change is slow, this too shall pass and we just have to do the best we can and remind ourselves that this won’t always be the way it is,” he said. “Grief — we have to walk through it, we can’t walk around it … That’s all part of this work.”