Sitting in a bar on St. Patrick’s Day in the mid-1980s, Dr. Bernie Branson had a choice to make.
From 1978 to 1982, Branson served as the first medical director of the gay men’s venereal disease clinic that would grow and evolve into Chase Brexton Health Care, before entering private practice. But as HIV and AIDS took hold in Baltimore’s LGBT community, Branson and providers across the city had to decide whether to continue to provide care to those affected.
With so little understood about the disease, many straight health care providers refused to provide care—or sometimes, even simple respect—to HIV-infected patients. For LGBT-identified medical professionals of the time, caring for those patients meant exposing themselves not just to the disease itself, but to their own community’s tragedy.
For Branson, that moment on St. Patrick’s Day was the culmination of his personal choice.
“I went through a very difficult soul-searching period, to say, ‘can I stay in this line of work,’” Branson recalls. “Because I have to make a decision, I can’t be frightened and do it at the same time. So either I have to get over it, or find a different line of work.”
Ultimately, Branson elected to serve his community, and his work left a lasting legacy; by the time he departed Baltimore in 1990 for a long career with the CDC in Atlanta, he alone was caring for approximately 250 HIV-positive patients. He also created the Health Education Resource Organization, or HERO, in 1983. Beginning as an outgrowth of informal group support and conversations taking place in his practice’s waiting room, HERO rapidly grew into a major state-wide provider of HIV and AIDS education and patient services.
One of Chase Brexton’s earliest providers, Branson began volunteering at the clinic just a few months after Dr. Roger Enlow and others established it in the basement of a local church.
His motivation for seeking out the clinic in 1978 was not primarily medical, but social: he simply wanted to meet new people in his adopted city after moving from North Carolina. In those early years, before the stigma of HIV and AIDS, the clinic’s two nights of operation each week served as a community gathering spot.
“Part of the aspect of the clinic was not this doctoral, health care focus,” Branson said. “People used to cruise the waiting room. What better place, after someone has just gotten a clean bill of health? And I don’t think that any of us attempted to discourage that.”
Despite Enlow’s central role in founding the clinic, as a rheumatology fellow at Johns Hopkins he was forced to keep his involvement quiet or risk retribution from his employer. Some volunteer providers who worked professionally at other health care organizations faced similar pressure, Branson said, and a few were forced to stop working at the clinic.
“You’d want your malpractice insurance to cover you for what you were doing at the clinic, and if your employer instructed you not to work at the clinic, then you were basically going without malpractice insurance, which people just don’t do,” he said. “So that was the easy lever to exert [against] the professionals who were there.”
As a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and a federal employee, Branson’s own insurance was covered by the agency, allowing him to act openly as a leading voice of the clinic throughout its early years. He played an active role in its merger with the GLCCB, then the GCCB; penned op-eds promoting the clinic for the Baltimore Gay Paper; and helped carve out space for the clinic on the third floor of the GLCCB’s new headquarters at 241 W. Chase Street, a location from which Chase Brexton would one day derive its name. However, he never worked at the Chase Street location, departing the clinic in 1982 and passing the role of medical director on to Dr. Sam Westrick.
Though a dark period in history, Branson views the AIDS epidemic as a watershed moment for LGBT medical providers at Chase Brexton, in Baltimore, and nationwide.
“It definitely brought people together, and it also empowered them,” he said. “I think it’s one of the reasons that, certainly gay men, rose in the esteem of other people, simply because they were confronting this problem that other people were confronting, and doing something about it.”