One of the oldest HIV-positive social groups in the country is slowly starting to come together again

One of the oldest social and support groups for (mostly) gay men living with HIV in the Washington area is Hope DC, which began in 1988 with an informal group of patients who saw each other at the HIV clinic in Georgetown Hospital. Over the next few decades, the group grew by word of mouth and then online to hundreds of members meeting each month in various homes for potlucks, moral support, camaraderie and sometimes romance.

After a two-year COVID hiatus (minus an in-person brunch last spring), the band officially reunited last month and are playing it by ear to see what happens with the latest COVID cases on the rise. before scheduling another meeting. Jimmy Garza, 57 and diagnosed with HIV in 1992, a member of the band since the early 90s and vice-president since around 2008, spoke with TheBody about the past, present and future of this special club.

Tim Murphy: Hi Jimmy. Thanks for chatting with us. So please tell us the story of Hope DC!

Jimmy Garza: From what I heard, some of the guys who went to Georgetown Hospital to see their doctors would see each other in the waiting room and start chatting. There was no support group for them, so they decided to start their own, get together and have a potluck. It was before the internet, so it was basically word of mouth.

I don’t know the names of the first members, except for David Michelson, who became the first vice president after we became a full-fledged nonprofit in 1996. He’s alive but not in very good health. .

As for me, I was in the military when I was diagnosed and my military doctor medically retired me. She wanted me to have a medical pension so I would have veterans benefit protection for the rest of my life – she was worried that HIV-positive service members would be fired, as that was on the table in Congress at the time. , although it eventually did. does not occur.

So I transitioned into the civilian workforce and moved to DC in 1993, just before the big LGBTQ March on Washington. I took Washington’s Blade Where Weekly metro, one of the gay newspapers, and called a guy who was in the dating classifieds in the back. He was positive too and after we had dinner he said, “I want to introduce you to this band.” So we passed [to] someone’s house, where you could put your name and number on a sheet at the door. Eventually, this list grew so long that they had to create a team of five to call everyone to tell them about the next party.

Murphy: How did you feel being there?

Garza: Ecstatic. I had felt so isolated as an HIV-positive gay man in the military, and I wanted to meet more people. It was a time when a lot of gay people rejected HIV-positive guys, so we needed our own social and dating group. It was also a time when every Friday, when Washington’s Blade came out, we checked the obituaries to see how many people we had lost. The social group was a mix of asymptomatic people and people with advanced disease, some of them just having trouble getting around. And sometimes people wouldn’t show up, and we knew why.

Murphy: Were there meetings in the group?

Garza: Absolutely. A hundred people would show up, then you would see people leaving in pairs. But in the cocktail era of the late 90s, people stopped being so sick and were able to go out more. Then with the internet and AOL, and then of course hookup apps a decade later, that changed everything. Attendance dropped dramatically because people could find what they needed online. But we still had a hard core that kept coming. Around 2004-5 was a tough time. A lot of board members quit, people died, and one of the past presidents embezzled a lot of our money. Later, half of her house burned down and she had a heart attack. Karma took care of this queen! [laughs]

Becoming a nonprofit in 1996 was great because we could get tax-deductible donations. We have opened an office in the city center with someone who takes care of the hotline during the day. We have also started, in addition to house parties, to organize visits to museums, the Baltimore National Aquarium, the natural caves of Virginia, [and] Monticello. In 2008, we started a brunch at the restaurant every first Saturday where we subsidized the bill. We did this until COVID in 2020.

Murphy: Is the group exclusively reserved for homosexuals? And what is the racial makeup?

Garza: It’s mainly for gay men because it started out as a hangout where other gay men didn’t want to date us, but I’ll help anyone who needs it. Previously, it was mostly white men. We did what we could to reach out to people of color, and now we have more POC in our group as well as on the board. Overall it’s definitely an older crowd – lots of long time survivors.

Murphy: So when COVID hits—

Garza: We had just received a major grant from the LGBTQ Brother, Help Thyself Foundation, which sadly closed recently, and we were going to launch a serious social media marketing blitz to find new, younger members. Then – boom, COVID hit. We had an emergency board meeting and decided to put everything on hold.

Murphy: Have you continued to meet on Zoom?

Garza: We had some Zoom [meetings], but there were so many people and it was hard to talk to each other, so we dissolved it. But we have a secret Facebook group, and we will continue to check on each other. We’ve had quite a few members who have contracted COVID, but I don’t think anyone died from it thankfully.

After the vaccines came out early last year, we had an in-person brunch in May, everyone with their masks on until it was time to eat. And then, of course, the Delta variant hit and we had to stop again.

Murphy: Until recently, yes?

Garza: We have just resumed brunch in mid-April at the same restaurant as usual. About 27 people came, which is a hard core, although between the Facebook group and email, we have a network of about 1,000 people. Our next event will be a social on May 21 at a beautiful big house in Arlington [Virginia] owned by a couple in our party. Then we’ll do another brunch. As long as the CDC says COVID levels stay low.

Murphy: It’s so nice to hear that the band is up and running again. What is the band’s tone these days, more than 30 years after their debut in far more dire times?

Garza: Basically, we’re living, and it’s time to let loose and have a nice little house party with our good friends.

DC-area readers interested in Hope DC can contact Garza through the website or directly at [email protected] or (202) 670-1792.

Toya J. Bell