The History of ASA’s Response to HIV and AIDS

HIV Affects Austinites

The first HIV case in Austin was reported in the summer of 1983, known at the time as GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Disorder.  In the first months of the outbreak, there was no local organization dedicated to the quickly growing crisis, and misinformation and fear were pervasive.
In August 1983, Paul Clover founded the Waterloo Counseling Center to serve the gay community through queer-positive, affordable mental health services. Founded through a first donation of $50 from Paul’s mother for the articles of incorporation, Waterloo quickly became a resource for people living with and dying of AIDS.  

“In the winter of 1984,” according to a 1986 memo by Clover, “it became apparent that the deepening problem of AIDS in Austin could not be handled by the loose coalition of Lambda, ALGPC, and Waterloo.” Drawing on the advice of Dr. Phil Zyblot of the Austin-Travis County Health Department, the board of Waterloo founded the Austin AIDS Project (AAP). The AAP served the community through a buddy program, safer-sex presentations, hospital visitations and outreach to medical professionals.

Volunteers Found AIDS Services of Austin

In 1987 the Austin AIDS Project was incorporated as AIDS Services of Austin (ASA). Throughout ASA’s history, volunteers have been instrumental to its growth. One of the groups formed in ASA’s first year was the Rubber Fairies, a group which distributed condoms and provided safer sex education. Their efforts garnered praise in an article on Splash Days in a July, 1988 issue of the Advocate, a national news magazine reporting on the LGBT community.

Another phenomenal volunteer organization, the Octopus Club, was organized by Lew Aldridge in 1987 and remains an innovative fundraising force in Austin. The Octopus Club raises funds through events such as ArtErotica, OctoTea, and themed house and pool parties for ASA’s Paul Kirby Emergency Assistance Fund, named for one of Austin’s earliest AIDS volunteers. Paul started AAP’s first newsletter, helped organize one of the first support groups for people living with HIV and AIDS, and was one of ASA’s founding board members. Lew continues his leadership with the Octopus Club, which has raised over $2 million for the Fund.

Organizing for Rights and Health

In the fall of 1986, the Texas Commissioner of Health proposed quarantining gay men suspected of having HIV and AIDS. Glen Maxey from the Austin AIDS Project organized medical experts – including long-time Octopus Club volunteer Mary Morrison – to testify before the Texas Legislature against quarantine. On the day the quarantine proposal was withdrawn, Maxey stepped onto the steps of the Texas Department of Health to a throng of cameras. Interviewed by Dan Rather for the CBS Evening News, Glen Maxey was outed as a gay activist. He would go on to become the first openly gay legislator in Texas and one of AIDS Services of Austin’s staunchest supporters, landing the first state funding earmark for community-based AIDS service organizations.

Later fights would include those against discrimination, misinformation, and denial of coverage by insurance companies.

In response to the unique legal issues faced by people living with HIV and AIDS, ASA started the Capital Area AIDS Legal Project, or CAALP, in 1990, primarily to provide wills and other life-planning documents. Their objectives have changed with the epidemic, and today CAALP offers a full array of pro bono legal services to people living with HIV and AIDS. 

Despite legal and societal challenges, AIDS Services of Austin has never been without allies. United States Congressman Lloyd Doggett was an early supporter, and former State Treasurer Ann Richards addressed the crowds at the first Walk for Life in 1988 (later renamed AIDS Walk Austin).

ASA Continues the Fight

With the advent of life-prolonging antiretroviral drug therapies, people with HIV were living longer. Pervasive fear of infection remained, but people now needed long-term care and services. Fear and discrimination caused some physicians, and especially dentists, to refuse medical and dental treatment to people living with HIV.  In response, in 1992 ASA founded the Jack Sansing Dental Clinic, which still provides quality, affordable dental care.

Today, ASA continues its focus on a holistic approach to living with HIV and AIDS, and advancements in treatment options reaffirm that a positive diagnosis no longer has to be the death sentence it once was. AIDS Services of Austin serves people with HIV and AIDS by providing a comprehensive array of counseling and services so that people can live their lives with independence and dignity.

ASA is also committed to a sustainable future. ASA’s main campus was fitted with solar panels in 2009 (saving the agency $230,000 over 25 years, a 10-to-1 return on investment); all electronics, batteries, and ink cartridges are recycled along with paper, aluminum, and plastic; and we have switched over completely from bottled water to filtered water.