Jim Graham courageously led Whitman-Walker Clinic (now Whitman-Walker Health) through the darkest hours of the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s and 1990s. He fought valiantly for others in the face of adversity and death. He crusaded for causes big and small that aided those most in need. He did so with a powerful life force fueled by his amazing intellect, boundless energy, and artful creativity. He was not just trying to end AIDS. He sought to eradicate injustice, discrimination, stigma, and inequality in our community. And he would expect — dare I say demand — that each one of us continue this quest of full equality and justice for all.
Over the past decade, I came to rely on Jim for advice and counsel much as we do with elders in our families, our faith-based institutions, or our friend groups. I did so because Jim had so much to offer me as a former Whitman-Walker leader. He had been through leadership challenges that are unimaginable today. Jim lived every major challenge before Whitman-Walker in his nearly 30-plus years of community service. He did so by standing up and being counted every day. He was at the center of so much progress in Washington, D.C. that it would be foolish of me to attempt to list all of his contributions.
I spent more time with Jim in recent years. In 2014, I sought his advice on the future of the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center. At that time our board of directors was assessing various options for redeveloping the iconic 14th Street, N.W. center. Jim shared with me his vision from the early 1990s when Whitman-Walker Clinic opened this center. That vision was to redevelop the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center to provide greater financial support for our mission. Fast forward to 2017, Whitman-Walker Health is embarking on a major redevelopment project that will provide more programming space and an additional funding stream to support our mission for many years to come. When we break ground this fall I know that Jim will be with us in one of his dapper suits and signature bowties, smiling from ear to ear.
In May 2015, Jim and I toured Whitman-Walker Health’s new facility at 1525 14th St., N.W. On the tour Jim shared what Whitman-Walker meant to him and how his life was shaped by his time here. Jim expressed pride in knowing that his legacy shown bright in the health care and other services we offer the community today. When we dedicated the new health center in June that year, Congresswoman Norton publicly thanked Jim for everything he did in support of metro Washington’s LGBTQ communities and those persons living with HIV. There were more than a few tears shed that day.
It should come as no surprise that Jim’s relationship with me was complicated. I suspect I am not the only person who can say that. He is widely viewed as a dominant father figure that guided Whitman-Walker Clinic to prominence locally and nationally. He was a masterful politician in every way possible. He was articulate to a fault and did not suffer fools kindly. We had our fair share of disagreements—some public but most in private. Yet through it all, Jim extended dignity and respect to me and always listened to my point of view. He never let me forget that Whitman-Walker Health is built on the strength, compassion, and love from metro Washington’s LGBTQ communities. It is a lesson that I carry with me every day.
In closing, Jim showed us how to lead and achieve real change in dark times. And now, once again, we fight for those in need. May we be guided by Jim’s spirit and tenacity. For there is much work to do in our community to be more affirming, more inclusive, and more just for all persons.
Don Blanchon is executive director of Whitman-Walker Health.