GMHC co-founder reflects on 40 years of HIV epidemic

The second-floor windows on a nondescript apartment building a block north of Washington Square Park will always elicit vivid memories for Dr. Lawrence Mass. "I'm constantly reliving things," he said.

Mass is reliving memories of crisis and confusion because it was in that building — in a living room on the second floor — where six men came together. "[It was] to raise money for research to find out what the hell we were dealing with," Mass said during an interview conducted in what is now New York City's AIDS Memorial Park.

Mass, a retired physician and a writer, was first tipped off to a problem when a doctor friend in the community called him.

"She said, 'There's something going on here, I can't talk about it,'" he said. "She said, 'There's people in the emergency care units, intensive care, some kind of disease. There've been some deaths. I can't talk about it.'"

In May 1981, Mass wrote the first press report to ever appear in print on what would become the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On Aug. 11, 1981, he and five others gathered in the living room of the renowned, fiery activist and playwright Larry Kramer.

"We agreed that we needed to have some kind of an organization," Mass said.

It would be called the Gay Men's Health Crisis. One of its first services was a hotline to field all kinds of questions.

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"When this person turned on the answering machine that night [for the first time], they received hundreds of calls and people leaving messages like, 'Please give me any kind of help,'" said Krishna Stone, the organization's community relations director. "And there was just not enough help, not enough answers."

Gay Men's Health Crisis is now known simply as GMHC, as their client base has broadened.

"It was like care services, prevention, programming, advocacy," Stone said. "So we were primarily focused and still are in those three areas."

And even during a new epidemic, GMHC is still there, providing services to those who need them most.

The takeaway message from Mass, four decades later?

"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are," Mass said. "So that's the real bottom-line message."