Responding to VD

One outcome of the sexual revolution of the late-1960s was an increase in the spread of VD (venereal disease, now referred to as STI, sexually transmitted infections). To address this increase of sexually transmitted infections, education was needed as well as an openness to discuss VD and the loss of the stigma associated with VD. Proactive education and testing was needed to respond to this health crisis.

In the late 1970s, organizations expanded services or new ones were establish around this and other issues related to gay and lesbian health.

The Chicago Gay Medical Students Association was founded in April 1973, to provide information about VD and open a VD clinic. In February 1974, a new community organization was incorporated named Gay Horizons. It also had a concern about VD. In May 1974, these two groups jointly opened a VD Testing and Treatment Center to provide a safe, welcoming, and confidential space where gay men could come for appropriate information and receive treatment without the negative attitude they got at the county health clinic. In May 1975, the center was renamed Howard Brown Memorial Clinic. Gay Horizons grew to become Horizons Community Services and is now The Center on Halsted.

However, convincing people to come to the clinic to be tested was difficult, especially in relation to identifying asymptomatic but transmittable infections.

In September 1975, Man’s Country, a bathhouse, started an in-house VD detection clinic on Saturday nights. Then, led by Man’s Country and with support of other nightlife institutions, a VD test clinic van program started. The van spent a night parked outside a nightlife place or a cluster of places.

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Wanda Lust (Stephen Jones) was a female impersonator, emcee, and entertainment director at Man’s Country. Due to her wit and friendliness as well as her concern and advocacy for sexual health, Man’s Country asked her to help out with the VD van. She donned a nurse’s uniform, traveled with the van, and interacted with those who stopped by the van for testing. She literally became the poster child for the project being featured on “I want you for a free VD test” posters that were put up in many gay establishments in the city. Her ability to put people at ease and help them have a fun experience contributed to the success of the project.

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The VD bus made its first run in September 1975 and its second run in May 1976. People were informed of positive results of their anonymous test by patient test numbers posted in the bars and newspapers. Of the 1,007 tests that were done during the first run, there were 48 positive results. Beginning May 1977 and into the early 1980s, the Chicago Gay Health Project (composed of personnel from Howard Brown and the Chicago Department of Health) took over organizing the annual VD van run and people contacted Howard Brown for results. The establisment of these health organizations in the 1970s allowed them to respond to the AIDS pandemic that rose in the early 1980s. Howard Brown has continued the practice of offering on-site STI testing.

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