Guest Opinion: In conversation with SFAF's Tyler TerMeer

  • by Cleve Jones
  • Wednesday October 12, 2022
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Cleve Jones, left, and Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., discuss the response to the MPX outbreak. Photo: Courtesy Cleve Jones
Cleve Jones, left, and Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., discuss the response to the MPX outbreak. Photo: Courtesy Cleve Jones

Cleve Jones, a co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, interviewed the agency's current CEO, Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., about the MPX outbreak, including the community's response and what it has learned from responding to AIDS. TerMeer, a gay Black man, took over leading SFAF in February. He and Jones are both living with HIV.

Cleve Jones: It's a pleasure to have this conversation with you, Dr. TerMeer, as you make your way further into your first year as San Francisco AIDS Foundation's CEO. I must say, between COVID-19 restrictions, the continuing overdose epidemic, and now MPX, you've had a wild ride so far at the helm of SFAF.

Tyler TerMeer: It certainly has been an interesting time — with lots of challenges. But I think that's what we expect as leaders, when we're at organizations that are fighting for health justice and for the lives of our community members. It's certainly something that you're familiar with.

Jones: That's one of the things I wanted to touch on during our conversation. Some of the fear and the anxiety around MPX did remind me of those early years of the AIDS epidemic. People weren't dying, of course, but there was something around the really intense fear that the LGBTQ+ community was being ignored and left behind by the federal government that struck me.

TerMeer: I agree. We heard a lot of those fears bubble up from the community during the first few weeks of the MPX outbreak. Thousands of people were calling our hotline with questions. So many people dropped by our health center, Strut, in the Castro to ask about MPX prevention, treatment, and other resources. They wanted answers, and they wanted the vaccine. For a while, we didn't have clear and consistent information on when we would get more vaccine.

Jones: It took too long for the federal government to respond adequately to MPX — to declare a state of emergency, and to authorize and secure enough vaccines for local and state governments to distribute. In the meantime, it was heartening to see the community come together and respond in really innovative ways. San Francisco AIDS Foundation — and you — were really at the forefront of that.

TerMeer: Thank you, I'm really proud of our response. Our teams stepped up in really astounding ways to care for our communities. I think in many ways, we felt at the heart of what we were responding to. This was our community being affected, and living in fear. It was us.

We basically created an entire new program around MPX in the last few months. In addition to clinical MPX services such as vaccination, testing, and treatment, we created a hotline in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, established a vaccine waitlist, held protests, created educational materials for the community, held vaccination events, worked to establish vaccine equity, and raised awareness of MPX in the media.

Jones: You yourself were very outspoken during the response. What compelled you to speak out?

TerMeer: It didn't feel optional. I had the opportunity to use my voice, my intersectional identity, our platform, and our experiences to share with the world what our clinic and our community were experiencing. And people listened. There is value in using your voice to ask for what you need. Again, I think that's something you know well.

Jones: I won't argue with that point, that's for sure. There were so many other times when I saw organizations, businesses, volunteers, and our San Francisco Department of Public Health stepping in as well. It felt like in the vacuum of the federal government, our community rallied to do the right thing.

I saw local bars, like El Rio, Beaux, and The Eagle, holding vaccination events and giving out info about MPX. Party and event producers, like for Castro Street Fair, Folsom, Dore Alley, and Lazy Bear, also stepped up to give folks information and also host vaccination events. They did this with no stigma and no shame. Just recognizing that there was a need in the community, and that they could help. And there were thousands of people who waited patiently for hours in long lines to protect themselves and their partners, which is incredible.

TerMeer: That's so true. I think so many folks in our community embraced being part of the solution. And now with case rates really going down, we're seeing the effects of that. Do you think that — because of the AIDS epidemic — we're more inclined to work together in response to a health crisis?

Jones: I absolutely think that's the case. This isn't our first rodeo. Back then, we created a model for how we can respond. It's proving useful again and again, with COVID-19, and now with MPX.

Cleve Jones is co-founder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation, creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now under the stewardship of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, and author of "When We Rise: My Life in the Movement." He is a human rights activist with a history of activism spanning five decades.

Tyler TerMeer, Ph.D., is CEO of San Francisco AIDS Foundation and co-chair of the AIDS United Public Policy Council. He is passionate about improving the health of people living with HIV, ensuring that LGBTQ+ people have access to affirming care, and supporting and empowering Black-led organizations and BIPOC leaders. TerMeer has been honored by the White House as one of the "Nation's Emerging LGBTQ+ Leaders," and as part of the "Nation's Emerging Black Leadership."

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