On an otherwise quiet residential block, with a school on one side and a church on the other, a nightclub once drew crowds from all along the East Coast for some of Washington, D.C.’s most raucous parties. The center of the city’s black gay nightlife, the ClubHouse, would have hundreds of patrons wrapped in a line around the block waiting to get in on a given night. But in the early 1980s, the nightclub’s manager began to notice that certain regulars had stopped showing up. Many of them, it turned out, were starting to get sick. Some started dying. For many, it visibly marked the beginning of the AIDS epidemic hitting D.C.
Like other organizations in the city, the ClubHouse quickly responded to the AIDS crisis. Its staff collected money for patrons who were too sick to work and pay rent. The club also partnered with Whitman-Walker Health, a D.C.-area clinic focused on HIV and LGBTQ care, to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. With city funds, Whitman-Walker started programs like syringe exchanges, which research showed could stymie the spread of HIV among injection-drug users by providing access to clean needles.
But as local organizations confronted the virus, the federal government often stood in their way. When Bill Clinton was sworn in to the presidency in 1993—after roughly 200,000 people diagnosed with AIDS in the U.S. had died—he launched a far more rigorous federal response to the epidemic than his predecessors had, dramatically increasing funding for research, treatment, and care. But the ramped-up efforts to stifle the epidemic left some communities behind when political fights got in the way. In 1998, Clinton upheld a Reagan-era ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges amid unsubstantiated concerns that those programs would promote drug use. That same year—when the epidemic’s death toll had reached more than 400,000—Congress, which oversees Washington, D.C.’s budget, banned the city from using its own municipal funds for syringe exchanges.