Metro Weekly

Saving Lives: An interview with Whitman-Walker’s Don Blanchon

Don Blanchon wants to ensure that Whitman-Walker Health remains a crucial lifeline to the LGBTQ community.

Don Blanchon — Photo: Todd Franson

Don Blanchon knows the Whitman-Walker Clinic took a risk when they hired him in 2006.

“I didn’t fit the prototype for an executive director of Whitman-Walker,” says Blanchon, a straight, married man whose predecessors included local gay luminaries Cornelius Baker and the late Jim Graham. At the time, the organization was primarily known for its work serving the LGBTQ community and people living with HIV or AIDS.

Blanchon won over any doubters by demonstrating his commitment to Whitman-Walker’s core mission: serving vulnerable and marginalized communities in the D.C. Metro area. “At the heart of Whitman-Walker is equality and social justice,” he says. “We want people to feel welcomed here, to feel affirmed here. I use the term all the time, that we want people to feel loved.”

Eleven years later, under his leadership — and a name change that proved essential in broadening its mission — Whitman-Walker Health is thriving. Guided by Blanchon’s emphasis on long-term sustainability, the community health center no longer finds itself in the type of repetitive boom-and-bust cycles that, in past years, often left it careening from one financial crisis to another.

Blanchon devised a plan to ensure Whitman-Walker isn’t susceptible to economic downturns or cuts to government funding. Two years ago, the center moved its medical and pharmacological services to an impressive new building at 1525 14th St. NW, marking the first step in a plan to leverage the real estate value of older properties to help fund its medical, HIV and STD testing, and counseling services.

Recently, Whitman-Walker broke ground on a new building at its Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center site, at 1701 14th St. NW. The new building will feature 155,000 feet of office, apartment, and retail space — all of which will generate revenue to help strengthen Whitman-Walker’s overall financial health.

Blanchon’s commitment to long-term sustainability goes beyond keeping Whitman-Walker solvent. It’s rooted in his belief that keeping the health center operational is essential to saving lives — something partially informed by his experience watching his brother Robert struggle with HIV, before eventually succumbing to AIDS-related health complications in 1999.

“I made the decision to come to Whitman-Walker for very personal reasons,” he says. “I don’t know if I would ever have gone and made my way here in other circumstances if it wasn’t for the issues with my brother. But I did, and it’s been the best job, and the best thing I’ve ever done with my time.”

Each year, Whitman-Walker Health hosts its annual “Walk & 5K to End HIV.” Now in its 31st year, and with a goal of raising at least $850,000, the walk will be held this Saturday morning, Oct. 28. It kicks off at 9:15 a.m. at Freedom Plaza, near the intersection of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But if you can’t manage five kilometers, do the next best thing — eat.

That same morning, and on Sunday, Oct. 29, as well, select local restaurants will participate in the second annual “Brunch to End HIV,” donating a percentage of brunch proceeds.

Blanchon is humbled and overwhelmed by the support that the Walk to End HIV gets from the local community year after year.

“It takes the community to make Whitman-Walker go,” he says. “The single biggest asset Whitman-Walker has is the support of the LGBTQ community and their straight allies. That’s why this place has been able to thrive.”

Don Blanchon — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: When you first joined Whitman-Walker, what was your vision for the clinic?

DON BLANCHON: I want to be really pragmatic, because I don’t want you to think that I’m a visionary, because I don’t see myself as a visionary. Having lived here for almost two decades and being in healthcare and losing a loved one to HIV, I knew how important this place was. Whitman-Walker was just coming off some really difficult times in 2005. At the same time, we also knew that we were not making inroads in the fight against HIV, and were still seeing far too many people being newly diagnosed.

So, you had the epidemic still in the community, and you had Whitman-Walker not as vibrant as it should be. When I joined, I thought the most important thing I could do is to try and bring some stability so that people knew that they could count on us. I didn’t want people worried about whether we were going to be open, because at the time we had had financial difficulties. I wanted people to know that they could come in and get tested for STDs and HIV. I didn’t want anybody worried about whether or not we could fill their medications, because if we didn’t have enough money we wouldn’t be able to stock the shelf for medications.

Things like that are really basic, but I was trying to build a sense of Whitman-Walker as a sanctuary, as a safe haven. I felt like we needed to be that place again, so I started with this premise: “Let’s be stable and constant for people. Regardless of how bad it is in the outside world, we’re still here.”

If you’ve followed our history, we’ve had like seven financial problems of significance in less than 35 years, and it’s taxing on our team. It’s taxing on the community for us to be in financial trouble every three-to-five years. It’s clearly upsetting to our employees, clearly upsetting the patients. Now, it’s a little bit like we’ve come back from the ashes. We were in a really difficult and challenging place for a number of years. Now we’re out of that.

MW: As a straight man running a health center still primarily known for serving the LGBTQ community, have you ever experienced any reverse discrimination or skepticism?

BLANCHON: Absolutely. This place, and rightly so, has been overtly political from the day it was founded. Why? Because there’s so much stigma and discrimination and bias around gender identity, orientation, HIV status, race, class, immigration status, you name it. This place has been a safe haven, and so it has at its heart not just health, but social justice and a pursuit towards equality.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community and you were employed here in 2006, and all of a sudden the board of directors hires a straight person that nobody knows, would you welcome that person with open arms? The short answer is some didn’t.

There was a lot more willingness to support me here than I think some people realize, because people were tired of being in this financial difficulty and tired of struggling, and they were like, “Please. We don’t care whether you’re gay, straight, or questioning. Can you get us through this?” It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about me. It was about this place being so important to Metro D.C.’s LGBTQ community that we’ve got to do whatever we can to make it vibrant.

MW: After you took over, Whitman-Walker shifted focus from a clinic to a community health center. Was there any resistance to those changes?

BLANCHON: The short answer is yes. We’re all human and we don’t like change. We just don’t. I think the difficulty was if you think about this place as a safe haven or a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community, but you only do HIV or STD [testing and treatment], by your very programming nature, you’ve excluded a whole bunch of individuals from the community. They think, “Well, I can’t just see a doctor who’s affirming around trans health because I’m not here for HIV or STDs. I’m here for hormone therapy.” Or if you’re a bisexual or lesbian woman, you think, “Okay, I need someone to help me with mammograms and pap smears for cancer testing and screening.” Because of the nature of what we did over a long period of time, we really weren’t for everybody in the community, and you had different groups that had more power. So there were individual concerns around change, and then there were group dynamics, so there were some really interesting internal discussions.

We were an AIDS service organization for 25 years. We did all things related to HIV, food, housing, legal, and then, over a five- to 10-year period, we’ve become a neighborhood health center with the focus on the LGBTQ community. After 2000, when most of the community had access to antiretrovirals, our mission became about how you could deliver really affirming health care, how you made sure that someone who’s living with HIV was getting their care and staying in treatment. Our model needed a shift post-2000. It took us a while to adjust to that.

MW: What percentage of Whitman-Walker’s clientele is LGBTQ?

BLANCHON: It’s somewhere between 55 and 58 percent. It’s been creeping up a little bit in the last couple of years because of the fact that we take health insurance, and so LGBT community members who are HIV-negative who are looking for primary medical care, behavioral health, or dental can use our facility.

MW: What percentage of your clientele are HIV-positive?

BLANCHON: About 3,500 individuals living with HIV out of about 18,000 individuals using some service, and roughly 2,500 people of our 10,000 primary care patients are HIV positive, so about a quarter of our primary care patients.

MW: In the 11 years you’ve worked at Whitman-Walker, what accomplishment means the most to you?

BLANCHON: It’d be simple to point to something very physical, like the new building we’re sitting in, or what we’re doing with the Elizabeth Taylor site, but that’s not it. I think the single biggest accomplishment that my team has achieved is people are looking to us with a sense of hope that this is a place they can be really proud of, where they can be affirmed for who they are, where they can get great care.

MW: What’s been your team’s biggest frustration, in terms of something that hasn’t been achieved?

BLANCHON: If I’m candid with you, we haven’t done enough yet to support east of the river and the communities and individuals that live there. There are reasons why we’ve chosen to do what we’ve done on 14th Street, but we have a lot of work left to do east of the river, and that, quite frankly, is kind our single biggest priority right now: to figure out our long-term commitment there.

I’ve used the analogy that Jim Graham and others brought us to 14th Street many years ago, when this was an area that was a really difficult, challenging neighborhood for a host of reasons. We put a flag in the ground at S Street, then we put a flag in the ground at R Street, and we were here for three decades. The neighborhood has changed significantly, but it will continue to take care of people.

We need to think like that for east of the river. What’s our investment? What’s our commitment to those communities? We face some of the very same challenges that were here back in the ’80s and early ’90s, whether it’s HIV, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s mental health services, whether it’s treatment for addiction, you name it.

MW: What are the hurdles in expanding your footprint east of the river?

BLANCHON: One element is just the practicalities of our overall financial health. The first five years I was here, it was a pretty significant struggle almost every year. The last five or so, we’ve been able to generate small operating margins and reinvest that. I give our board of directors a tremendous amount of credit for their vision and leadership around thinking about using the Elizabeth Taylor Center and the economic value of that to reinvest. It’s my hope that we will, in turn, use the value from Elizabeth Taylor to do something significant east of the river. The idea is we’ve had that land and those buildings appreciate over 25 years. Let’s use that economic value and make a significant investment across the river for those communities.

I think there’s also a pragmatic side, which is 40-plus percent of our patients walk to this health center. So there were logistical issues with 90 percent of our work taking place at the Elizabeth Taylor building, and we were running out of space. We had to deal with that first. We could have made the decision not to do that and move east of the river, but we would have created immediate problems for the people that get services here. That’s not an excuse, but that’s the rationale for why we did what we did.

MW: Let’s talk about your first experience with the HIV epidemic.

BLANCHON: My first experience goes all the way back to 1986. I was in New York City in graduate school. I was in the public health program, and some of my classmates started getting sick, and then two of my classmates passed away. Living in New York in the late ’80s was eye-opening, and it wasn’t just that I lived there and read about it. I mean, there were people in my class who were there, and then, within six months, weren’t there. People were like, “What is going on?” There was so much coverage in New York, both in the gay press and otherwise. It was so scary at that time. And then by the time I got to 1990, we were dealing with my younger brother, Robert.

MW: Did you have a good relationship with Robert?

BLANCHON: I’m from outside of Boston, in Foxborough, Massachusetts — we have something up there called “Irish twins,” if you’re pretty close, birth order. Robert was 14 months my junior, and we lived in the same room for about 17 years in bunk beds. He was with me all the time. We were lovingly known as “the little ones” in our family and spent a ton of time together. But he was very different than I was. I teased him all the time. He was better looking, he was funnier, he was smarter than I was. His creativity was unbelievable, and he had an energy about him and it was just a joy to be around him. There isn’t a day I’m not here that I don’t think about him. It’s hard not to.

MW: Did he identify as gay?

BLANCHON: Yes.

MW: When did he come out to you?

BLANCHON: I would have been 17, and he was 16. He got into difficulties where he was bullied significantly in high school. Again, where we’re from, it’s not the most progressive part of the planet, and, at that time, in the early ’80s, he was picked on for being effeminate, to the point where my parents felt like they had to do something about it. He actually switched high schools in the middle of his freshman year. It was terrible.

I remember, to this day, having people that I knew who were in my high school, in my class, picking on my brother and having to get into arguments, and in one incident, get into a fight with somebody about, “You need to leave him alone.” It was hard to watch, because it was my brother. And it was also hard to watch because it involved people I grew up with — the fact that they could be that mean-spirited and had that much hatred in them was just something else.

MW: Were you surprised when he came out to you?

BLANCHON: Nope, not at all. I’d been with him the whole time. I knew who he was. I guess because it was just my age and I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions. I mean, I had whatever bias or stereotypes I had, but he was my brother.

MW: What was your brother’s response when he learned he had HIV? BLANCHON: He was very active in ACT UP and, as an artist, he channeled a lot of his energy towards his art. If you go online and look at some of his work, he did a number of pieces in Chicago around some things that Mayor Daley did, which was still pretty funny.

He had a lot of anger about growing up where he grew up and the fact that a lot of people turned their back on him, and that was really tough. He went and found and made his family by choice. He was out in California for a while. He was in New York for a while. He ultimately was in Chicago, where he died in ’99, and he had a group of people that clearly loved him and supported him, and he got that emotional support from them. But there were fundamental dynamics in my family and where we grew up. We’re talking about the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s not 2017 where people have a lot more understanding and are a lot more accepting of people for who they are.

I visited him a number of times when he was sick. I remember one time he lived in Soho in a small apartment, and I remember coming in, and it was like those old images you’ve seen in the plays or movies about the epidemic, where there are just bins of medications, and something on the refrigerator that looks like a Gantt Chart, with when he was to take everything and how. I just looked at him, like, “How do you remember to do this?” I was just dumbfounded. I give him a lot of credit. He had a fighter’s spirit. He always had from the day he was born.

MW: Did you see a physical difference in him as the disease progressed?

BLANCHON: Oh, my Lord. From ’96 on. The last three years of his life, he was markedly different. At the end of his life, he had CMV and had lost his sight in one eye. He had Kaposi sarcoma. He probably weighed 130 pounds, if that.

Basically three, four days before he passes away, he made the decision that he doesn’t want to live anymore. He’s like, “I want off the ventilator. I want off of everything. I’m done.” I said, “Are you sure?” And he goes, “Yes.”

He knew I was upset. I was just so sad. I couldn’t believe this was going to happen, and he turns around and just kind of looks at me. He couldn’t talk because of the ventilator. But he writes down, “You know, no matter what I look like right now, I’ll always be better looking than you.” That’s who he was.

Don Blanchon — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Let’s talk about the Walk & 5K to End HIV. Some people still call it the AIDS Walk, and it’s been an annual event for over 30 years. How has it changed since you’ve become executive director?

BLANCHON: Being old enough to have done some of the earliest walks in New York, and knowing of the walk here before I started working at Whitman-Walker, there was this real urgency around it when people were dying. Then, when the medications came along and there was more government funding, there was a little bit of waning. The community was like, “Okay, there’s stuff available, either services or medication or tests,” and then at the same time, there were a whole bunch of other issues in society and walks for other causes, and so that started a competitive dynamic with other issues affecting the community.

In 2009 and 2010, because the city started making significant improvements in fighting HIV, there was kind of this renewed sense of, “Wow, if we could take this large plan we have across testing and treatment on demand and using treatment as prevention, we could really potentially get new infections to zero.” So, for the last five years or so, there’s really been this energy around that optimism. We’ve had seven straight years of declines in new infections in the city. So I think interest waned for a period of time and then we made progress as a community, and now people think, “We’re making a real difference.”

I think the other issue, just from the branding perspective, I’m old enough to know what AIDS is, but if you talk to people under the age of 25, it’s HIV. We’re trying to communicate with a new generation of people that have never lived through the AIDS epidemic. So I may want to call it “AIDS Walk” for the rest of my life because of who I am and how I remember this, but if that doesn’t reach this younger group of people, what have I done? I’ve created a barrier for them to engage with us, so that’s part of the reason why we did the name change.

MW: Is there a renewed sense of urgency given what we’re seeing from the federal government in terms of proposed budget cuts to HIV care?

BLANCHON: Absolutely. People ask me what keeps me up at night. It’s crazy federal policy, whether it’s about PrEP, PEP, whether it’s about funding ADAP, or whether it’s about what we can or can’t do in terms of sex ed. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me up. I don’t have control over that. I can advocate as Whitman-Walker. I can advocate and resist with other groups, but at the end of the day, the federal government says X, and then we have to figure out how we’re going to deal with that.

Funding is a big deal, because if you look at Whitman-Walker now, it is not a small entity. We’re close to 300 employees. With our pharmacy, we’re close to about $95 million in revenue. I’ve got five or six sites that are operating. We see 18,000 people in a year. This is not a small operation, and so we have to think about “How do we protect against those crazy decisions that come up?” The thing that keeps me up is that we’re going to have to make one or more of those decisions that hurts this place and sets us backwards. That’s part of the reason you’ve seen us work on real estate and other projects: we’ve got to find other ways to get stable funding, and some of them have to be outside of the government, because government isn’t always stable. There’s a heightened anxiety. There’s a sentiment of that right now in the community, and it’s palpable.

MW: When you talk about “crazy federal policy,” is there ever a thought that one of these decisions is going to exacerbate the HIV epidemic, and we’re going to see people dying again?

BLANCHON: No. The great thing about people is that we, by and large, actually do learn from the past and we try not to repeat those mistakes or experiences. The community knows how to fight HIV in D.C., and I would expect if the federal government reduced funding significantly that the community as a whole would step forward and say, “We’re not gonna lose ground because the federal government changes how they’re going to pay.” I would expect Whitman-Walker and myself to be a leader in that cause.

The 31st annual Walk & 5K to End HIV is Saturday, Oct. 28 from 8:30-11 a.m. at Freedom Plaza, 1455 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, with the 5K run kicking off at 9:15 a.m. and the walk starting at 9:30 a.m. All proceeds benefit Whitman-Walker Health’s HIV testing, prevention, counseling, and outreach efforts. To register, visit walktoendhiv.org.

The second annual Brunch to End HIV will be held at select restaurants from Saturday, Oct. 28 to Sunday, Oct. 29, with a set percentage of brunch proceeds benefiting Whitman-Walker Health. For a list of participating restaurants, visit walktoendhiv.org/brunch.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com