The list of candidates for our Human Rights Heroes column was long, and it included a number of well-known people and organizations involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS around the globe. But there are many individuals and groups—perhaps not readily associated with human rights—whose dedicated, unheralded, and often heroic daily work on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS gives life to the purpose and promise of human rights principles. In a grateful nod to them, the editors of Human Rights are proud to honor Whitman-Walker Clinic (WWC) and its legal arm, Whitman-Walker Clinic Legal Services (WWCLS), as human rights heroes.
A nonprofit, community-based health organization serving the Washington, D.C., region, WWC is comprised of volunteers and staff who provide or facilitate the delivery of high-quality, comprehensive, accessible healthcare and community services to people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Its model has been used by other clinics and HIV legal services organizations around the country. The clinic began in the early 1970s as the Gay Men’s VD Clinic and was run entirely by volunteers in the basement of the Georgetown Lutheran Church. The VD Clinic eventually grew into an all-volunteer health clinic and was incorporated as Whitman-Walker Clinic in 1978.
In the early 1980s, WWC expanded its program to meet the legal needs of the incipient AIDS challenge. Executive Director Jim Graham, a lawyer who had clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren, began writing wills for WWC clients, most of whom were gay men dying of AIDS, struggling with society’s stigmatization of homosexuality and of AIDS itself, estranged from their biological families, and dependent upon their partners or close friends for support.
Today, WWCLS serves almost 900 new clients and works on 1,900 new legal matters every year, all handled by seven staff attorneys, a legal assistant, an administrative assistant, and a large network of attorneys in private practice, government service, or other settings. Most of its clients are poor, reflecting the impoverishing impact of HIV/AIDS and the epidemic’s growing prevalence in low-income populations. In 2003, approximately 65 percent of WWCLS clients had incomes below the federal poverty level ($8,980 per year for an individual) and 85 percent had incomes below twice that level.
Thanks to drug regimens developed in the mid-1990s, many people with HIV and AIDS now live longer and healthier lives. WWCLS’s practice therefore has evolved from one devoted primarily to helping clients prepare for decline and death to one concerned largely with helping them live for many more years with a chronic but still life-threatening and stigmatizing illness. As life expectancy and health have improved, legal problems associated with HIV/AIDS have become more complex.
Returning to the workforce, for example, is now a realistic option for people living with HIV/AIDS. Yet many seeking to do so face dauntingly complex return-to-work rules imposed by the Social Security Administration and private insurance companies in addition to the practical challenges of looking for a job after years of being unemployed and receiving disability benefits. Counseling clients on return-to-work legal issues therefore has become a major part of WWCLS’s practice. Staff and volunteers have represented hundreds of clients with discrimination claims and helped them remain in the workforce by negotiating reasonable accommodations with their employers.
For foreign nationals with HIV/AIDS, U.S. immigration law also poses particular challenges. WWCLS staff and volunteer lawyers help HIV-positive foreign nationals living in the D.C. area to navigate the complex requirements of U.S. immigration law. They also negotiate with U.S. State Department personnel on behalf of HIV-positive clients living in other countries, enabling them to join their families here. In recent years, WWCLS also has developed a robust practice in asylum cases based on claims of persecution because of HIV infection, sexual orientation, or transgender status. Indeed, in immigrant communities where HIV/AIDS and homosexuality often are even more highly stigmatized than in the United States generally, WWCLS is well known as a place to receive excellent, supportive, and confidential legal advice.
WWCLS lawyers engage in a number of broader advocacy activities as well, including filing amicus curiae briefs in cases raising important issues of HIV law, working with government policymakers and agencies to develop more effective policy, educating healthcare and social services providers and employers throughout the D.C. area about HIV/AIDS law, and serving as authorities on legal issues for lawyers working on HIV/AIDS cases throughout the United States.
WWCLS does all of this work on a small, precarious budget. Although it receives generous support from the Washington, D.C., legal community, funding challenges are constant. Major declines in private fund-raising after September 11 and the economic downturn intensified the challenge. In 2003 and early 2004, funding cuts forced WWCLS to eliminate three positions. Yet WWCLS will continue to strive—heroically—to serve as a model legal services program for people with HIV/AIDS.