A thread that winds through everything

“Free condoms! Take as many as you like! Free condoms here!”

A few times a year I hawk free condoms at Union Station in Chicago and the Intermodal Station in Milwaukee. I figure young adults traveling Amtrak for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Spring Break should be prepared. After all, some reunions are best served with latex.

I take a particular pleasure in dispensing these wonders of safety standing next to Jehovah’s Witnesses outside Union Station. They are aware that they cannot ask me to move along, just as I cannot expect them to fold up their completely illegal bookmobiles that local authorities are terrified to question. (Seriously, since when has a folding bookrack constituted speech, especially when it is blocking access to public thoroughfares?)

People who remember when my late husband Paul and I went all in on HIV care and prevention might believe that my interest in sexual and reproductive health began then. In fact, by fourth grade I was learning about reproduction and trying in my limited ways to enlighten my peers. The weird stories I had heard from them a year earlier demanded that one of us was going to have to lead the way.

When we got to sixth grade, girls and boys were directed to different classrooms one day so we could learn about sex. However, at St. Gerard’s Grade School, that meant girls learned about menstruation and boys about using soap to not smell as bad as we were thought to by girls and adults. Boys were also given a book about sex that was so muddled that I took away from it two things: masturbation weakens a person, making him feeble minded, and — this is the best part — the pictures of the buff body builders in the book were great inspiration for masturbation fantasies in a not-quite-yet-gay boy.

Flash forward to 1985. I got a job at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin where I would direct its budding professional training program. Soon I was leading its community education program as well. I had a staff of about 30 full- and part-time educators around the state. Our program content was mostly aimed at adolescents and sexual reproduction, but there were other interesting content areas as well. Among my favorite was teaching developmentally delayed young adults about hygiene and contraception.

This work was expanding my role as an educator, having taught high school for more than a decade by then. But it was also testing my focus. There was a new gay plague hitting the news right then, and in Wisconsin the issues of HIV and its transmission were being glossed over almost everywhere. The politics of a fatal sexually transmitted infection put me in some interesting situations. However, when I opted to leave the Wisconsin Planned Parenthood affiliate to return to graduate school, the national office brought me in as an advisor in their push to mandate school sexuality education at the state level in 20 jurisdictions where it was deemed feasible.

Five years later, having been working at a large vertically integrated health care system for several years, I applied for and got a federal grant to increase the number and types of programs in Wisconsin addressing HIV prevention for teens. The funding was renewed several times and served as a nucleus of funds to launch a successor organization to that original program: Diverse and Resilient, Inc.

While at the helm of the organization, I had three remarkable experiences involving United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. First, when we launched Acceptance Journeys, a community-level social marketing campaign to reduce the specific anti-gay discrimination that leads to youth homelessness and thus vulnerability to HIV transmissions, United Way stepped up to be the first and most influential supporter of our efforts. Second, they later came to us and asked that we revitalize a condom distribution campaign that is now known as 414All. Finally, as the largest purveyors of free condoms in the state, we were invited to be prominent members of their community effort to reduce teen pregnancy rates. Despite our meticulous, evidence-based work up to that point, nothing propelled us into public view as much as this highly visible partnership with United Way.

The thread that started on a walk home with friends in third grade, wound around 60 years of experiences: teen pregnancy prevention, HIV prevention education, contraceptive access, school sexuality education, sexual health policy, acceptance of sexual minorities, community mobilization, and more. Along the way, Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, Diverse and Resilient, Inc., and United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County encouraged and supported my work. Today, I am pleased to support theirs.

I look forward to hearing your interests in our public health needs. Do these interests translate into funding or volunteerism? Do you believe that government funding pays for the work of our decentralized public health system? It would be great to keep the conversation in comments here or in social media.

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