I volunteered at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., a health facility specifically established to help the gay community. I was immediately assigned a patient. My job was to take care of him in any way he needed. I cooked for him, fed him, bathed him, dressed him, even gave him injections. I used every safety device possible. I wore plastic gloves, showered before and after each time with him, washed my hands repeatedly. A few months later, he died. I wept at his funeral. I had grown to love him.
A medical check verified that I was free of the disease. The clinic assigned me another patient. My journey through the world of AIDS had begun.
None of the volunteers working with AIDS patients at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in the 1980s were medically trained. Our job was not to treat for the disease but to comfort our patients in any way we could. In effect, we were there to help them die as peacefully and painlessly as possible. To distinguish us from medical practitioners, we were called “buddies.”
We had monthly team meetings. I discovered at my first meeting that I was the only straight volunteer at the clinic. The others maintained their distance from me. I learned what it felt like to be the object of prejudice.
The purpose of the monthly meetings was to allow us to vent and support one another. More than once, I held a guy while he wept over the decline or death of his patient. We exchanged phone numbers and felt free to call one another when we needed to talk. By the second meeting I attended, the other buddies began treating me like one of them. Some months later, our team leader urged us to work with families of the patients and help them cope. One of our jobs, he said, was to show that even though we were homosexual, we were strong and competent men. “Take Tom, for example” he said. “He can demonstrate how a gay man is firm and dependable.” The others nodded.
The team leader had forgotten I was straight. So had the others. For the first time in my life, I felt honored to be considered gay.
More next time.