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LGBT Pride Month Local Hero Terry Cunningham Dedicates Life to Fighting AIDS

LGBT Pride Month 2015 Honoree

Photo credit: Ron Stein

2015 LGBT Pride Month Local Hero, Terry Cunningham

If there’s one thing Terry Cunningham feels, it’s that he didn’t do enough.

“If I could do it over, I’d do more,” says the 2015 LGBT Pride Month Local Hero. “I would’ve pushed harder. How could I ever say I did enough when it’s still going on today?”

As Cunningham recalls the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the 30 years he dedicated to combating it, the experience deeply affected him. Seeing so many around him die took its toll.

“I had a friend in LA,” he recalls. “We used to call each other every couple of weeks. It was too hard to ask if somebody was still alive, so we would just say they went to Paris. That was the only way we could handle our grief. It was just too much.”

To many San Diegans, Cunningham has long been the voice of HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment. Two years ago he retired from his position as chief of the County of San Diego HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health Services. Yet Cunningham still gives of his time to organizations and serves on committees, including serving as chair of the host committee for the 2014 United States Conference on AIDS.

Cunningham hails from Akron, Ohio. He remembers his first visit to San Diego in 1978, when he came here at the urging of a friend.

“We rented a place by Mission Beach,” he recalls. “I took a look around and then sent one postcard home to my parents that read, ‘I found paradise.’ It had been cold and wintry in Akron and when I came here, it was heaven. I had worked as a junior executive for Goodyear for 12 years and was tired of the rat race. I wanted out and moved here. ”

While working at a vegetarian restaurant on Mission Boulevard, he noticed a sign at the Beach Area Community Clinic, recruiting for medical assistant volunteers.

“The sign said they wanted people interested in training to do triage, take blood pressure and temperatures before patients see the doctor. I had been a pre-med student at Denison University for two years, before I transferred to Kent State and majored in English. So I signed up and started volunteering.”

Within a year, Cunningham became the volunteer director of the Men’s Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinic.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Terry Cunningham

Cunningham, on behalf of the San Ysidro Health Center, accepts gift from the March of Dimes.

“Around that time, in 1979, there was a lot of information coming out about gay men having more STD’s (sexually transmitted disease) than their heterosexual counterparts. We thought we should put together a program for gay men. We started a screening program called the Well Gay Males At The Beach. The doctors trained me and I was giving full physicals and drawing blood. I loved it.”

In 1982, Cunningham first started seeing patients with HIV/AIDS.

“We had no idea what we were seeing, he says. “I diagnosed a couple of people. If we saw someone that had really unusual symptomology, thrush in their mouths, diarrhea, night sweats, or swollen lymph nodes, we’d refer them over to Dr. Chris Mathews, an amazing man. He was founder and director of the Owen Clinic at University of California, San Diego, which would later become the largest provider of HIV/AIDS care in San Diego. He would take them from there. There was really nothing anyone could do at the time. They were dying. It was horrible.”

In 1985, John Ciaccio, the co-founder of the Gayzette, a San Diego newspaper for the LGBT community, died from complications from AIDS. Ciaccio was one of the first in San Diego to come out publicly with the fact that he had AIDS.

“John was a friend. He was on a lot of committees that I was on. After he died I started the Ciaccio Memorial Clinic, naming it after him.”

As the disease progressed, Cunningham became known for being outspoken about HIV/AIDS.

“I was out there talking about what we knew about the disease,” Cunningham says. “I’d talk to people about the need to engage in safe sex until we had more information about what was going on and how it was transmitted. We didn’t know anything, but we were pretty sure using universal precautions, such as condoms, could prevent it.”

His philosophy in dealing with the epidemic was always about being proactive.

“We decided we weren’t going to use scare tactics,” he says. “We wanted people to get screened and tested and have anything going on with them treated. A healthy immune system was the best defense. Our strategy gained a great deal of support.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Terry Cunningham

Cunningham attending one of the West Coast’s oldest LGBT community awards, The Nicky Awards, in the early 1990s.

Public perception of the epidemic reached a turning point when a teenaged hemophiliac, Ryan White, contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. As he and his mother fought for his right to attend school, public awareness of the disease—and the myths surrounding it—grew. After his death in 1990, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act, which provided HIV/AIDS treatment to those who could not afford it otherwise.

Though retired, Cunningham still volunteers his time in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He also serves on a committee to create an AIDS memorial for San Diego, where more than 7,000 have died of the disease.

“I’m the chair of the HIV Health Services Planning Council,” he says. “I’m also on an ad hoc committee for the unification project to do care and treatment and prevention, and on another ad hoc committee to look at how we can actually stop HIV/AIDS by 2020.”

At its peak, the number of patients diagnosed in San Diego was 20 to 30 per day. Today, it’s approximately one a day. For this Local Hero, as long as people continue to contract HIV, he will continue to sound the clarion call.

“I still am trying to get people to get tested, and to stay on their meds,” he admits. “Early on, the lifespan was six weeks and people were told, ‘I’m sorry you have AIDS. You have to get your affairs in order.’ Today, staying on your meds can mean having a life expectancy the same as everyone else’s. Yet, only 34% of those who have it, take the meds.”

Cunningham, who witnessed first-hand the 1970 Kent State shootings, says that the experience taught him a lesson that would resonate for him later, when in the throes of the AIDS epidemic.

“I always believed that the government protects you, but Kent State made me see things differently,” he explains. “Then, when AIDS first hit in 1982, there was no government response. We, the LGBTQ community knew that we had to take the lead in providing education and whatever supportive services we could, to our friends and partners with AIDS. That is why so many grass-roots organizations began to address these needs. We hoped that the federal government would recognize the need at some point and provide much needed relief. When the Ryan White CARE Act was passed, there was a collective sigh of relief, feeling at last that we were no longer alone in this effort.”

Cunningham has kept a folder that is filled with of newspaper articles and photos documenting highlights of his career and important occasions. These mementos are a testament to a life devoted to fighting AIDS. Staring at the brown-edge clippings and the faded photos, some with people whose names Cunningham can no longer remember, he gives a deep sigh.

“What a waste,” he says. “So many people died. It was crazy, why was this happening? If it hadn’t been for Ryan White, if it hadn’t been for Kennedy, I think we’d be in terrible shape right now and I think that it would’ve been a huge backlash against the gay community. I think that if I had it to do over again, I probably would’ve been a little louder."

Local Heroes LGBT Pride Month Terry Cunningham

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