Health Center Advocacy, Uncategorized

A Reflection on Pride and the Health Center Movement

Jim Luisi in rainbow Pride t-shirt

By James Luisi, CEO, North End Waterfront Health, Immediate Past Chair, NACHC Board of Directors.

While Pride became a celebration throughout the month of June, it started out as a protest. After New York City police raided the Stonewall Bar, a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community, the patrons, who were mostly drag queens, decided to fight back. This sparked an uprising and launched a new era of resistance that would later turn to celebrations. For 200 years police had been harassing, beating and arresting members of our community. That night sparked a movement that signaled we will not stop fighting until full equality is realized.

I joined the Community Health Center movement as a college student working in the neighborhood my grandparents lived in since they immigrated from Italy a century earlier. It felt like home and the mission of health care for all resonated with my values. In the 80s as a young gay man I was confronted with the AIDS epidemic which was ravaging the gay community. This pushed me out of the closet to become political and an activist with Act-Up and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Working at the health center made me feel safe with caring people who were judgment-free to all who became patients. My job was in finance but the epidemic gave me an opportunity to work on the front lines delivering meals, medications and taking the very ill to their appointments. It also cemented my desire to make community health my life’s work.

At the start of the AIDS epidemic, there were only a few health centers like the Fenway and Whitman-Walker that had expertise in caring for the LGBTQ+ community. Thankfully, over the years, that number has increased with the goal of every health center being able to provide culturally competent care to our community.

When I first started attending NACHC’s Community Health Institute and Policy & Issues Forum, there was no platform to discuss LGBTQ+ issues besides HIV/AIDS. I was a member of a group of gay men who would have a dinner during these conferences and out of that came discussions about creating some kind of LGBTQ Committee or Task Force. With Fenway taking the lead, we now have the LGBTQ Task Force which meets at the conferences and reports to the NACHC Board. After being a NACHC officer for 8 years, in 2017 I served as NACHC’s Board Chair, the first out member of the LGBTQ community to lead our great organization.

We have come a long way but we have a long way to go. This month the Supreme Court is taking up a case on whether same sex couples can adopt, the House has passed the Equality Act but it has not been taken up in the Senate. Members of our trans community continue to be discriminated in employment and sports while suffering with some of the highest rates of violence.

We still have much work to do but have many allies to help. I remember marching in my first Pride march decades ago. We experienced many boos and things thrown at us. Happily at my last Pride celebration, there were so many people clapping and showing support that it felt like we have made giant strides!

Working in a health center has been rewarding while exhausting especially during the covid pandemic.  I come to work every day knowing I can help make a difference in the lives of our patients. But I won’t sleep until all of us are treated the same and I won’t stop fighting until that happens. As President Biden said at the beginning of Pride month: “Accept nothing less than full equality.”