Transcript of an interview conducted by former GHAP Advocate, Will Hughes — September 8, 2013
Q: Here are the big things I want to talk to you about: your story, your involvement with the group, after you became the coordinator, after you’ve become involved in the group, your current position. And then the other thing I want to talk about, since you are very close with Laura and have seen the group also evolve, because you’re a part of it now for what, 13 years? More than that, yes?
Chiarilli: Yeah, I’m starting my 9th year as coordinator, so probably 14 years, 13 or 14 years.
Q: Well, and just how you’ve seen the group change over time and then if you have any generalized thoughts about the need for campus clinics and HIV counseling and that kind of format, I would love to have you talk about that. But let’s start with how you first heard of GHAP.
Chiarilli: Okay. Before I volunteered, or applied to volunteer at GHAP, I was in a graduate student supportive discussion gay male group that Laura and Ryan Kull, who was the coordinator of GHAP at the time, were facilitating. And so that’s how I met Laura and Ryan. And to be honest I have a horrible memory, so I feel badly, I’m going to really search for the memories here, but I feel like when that group was dissolving, or ending, or when it was time to recruit new advocates, maybe Laura or Ryan said something to me about it, like if it would be something you would be interested in doing. So that’s how I first became involved. I hadn’t used GHAP as a client before that. I came to Columbia in 1997 as a graduate student in musicology. And I didn’t use much of the medical services as a part of the health service. I used counseling services, but I didn’t really use the medical part. And so it was more along like the counseling aspect of it that I encountered more of who I am, like my third or fourth year into graduate school, I think. And that’s when the volunteer opportunity came along.
Q: Okay. So then just from there you kind of started into the recruiting. Like the training process, what was that like?
Chiarilli: Exactly, yeah. Well, at that point in time, for the year that I was doing the training in the first semester of my counseling. And I think my personal feeling was that I was older than people who were in it. So I’m not so sure, like I think your experience is probably different, because you were in the midst of a lot of people your age or whatever. So I kind of envy that, I wish I were sort of socialized more with everybody and GHAP. But my sort of main purpose in going in it was that I was in the midst of sort of thinking about myself coming out. I came out sort of late, at age 25, so this is only four or five years after that. And I was in therapy and really sort of interested in gay men’s mental health. And so that was really the huge sort of benefit for me, was being able to listen to people, learn how to listen to people, and obviously the HIV was a big issue, but my first sort of pull was towards sort of the mental health aspects of it. I can’t remember the training in a huge amount of detail, probably now because I’ve trained myself eight classes, so it’s hard to remember exactly what happened. I think they did it way better than I ever did it, but it was a singular sort of thing where there was a training manual. We had lots of visitors who would come in, I think more than currently, and talk about different aspects of health. But the class was mostly undergraduates at that point in time, and if you maybe go back to premed students in general studies. But, yeah, Laura was amazing as always. So, you know, it kept us all sort of coming back.
Q: Okay. What was it like when you first started, after the training process and all that?
Chiarilli: Yeah. It was great. It felt, I’m sure every advocate has a different sort of experience as to what it means for them to do the counseling. For me it felt wonderful that somebody would open up and talk about how things are going for them, whether it is their risk for HIV, their sex life, or coming out issues, identity issues, personal issues. I loved to go over to the health service; I lived across the street at the time at a graduate student apartment. And spending some time apart from my dissertation where I was going out of myself, you know, out of my own head and engaging with somebody else, speak to them. And sort of affording them the same kind of time that Laura and Ryan had for me in the discussion group that I was a part of. So I loved it.
Q: And so you first counseled in 2001?
Chiarilli: That’s right.
Q: What were peoples’ attitudes towards HIV like? The reason I ask is it’s far enough from today, but still it was what, six years after really anti-retrovirals and the cocktail being popularized.
Q: So I guess, and I’m sure there was a huge variety.
Chiarilli: Yeah, it’s true. It’s funny to think that when GHAP started, when it was like CUGHAP, I was either in the second half of my freshman year of high school, or the first half of my sophomore year of high school. In my mind it wasn’t there. I grew up in such a small town and, you know, it wasn’t, it just wasn’t something that people talked about. Right? So maybe a little bit in health class, it was scary, but it wasn’t something that I was really aware of. And even in college, which was ’88 to ’92 or something, people would get an HIV test, I sort of remembered some of my friends, I wasn’t sexually active yet, so I didn’t, but I sort of remember some of my friends going and getting an HIV test at like the local civic center. And part of it was to do something that they felt was the right thing to do because it was, you know, people who were usually sort of politically minded, for feminist groups, or the like, or even some queer groups, but I don’t think there are people who I knew were talking at least about really being scared of HIV. Counseling, at that time, I think that it already was significantly different from probably some of the other people that you’ve interviewed for this, in that an HIV infection was not a death sentence. So, you know, the message was that people should find out if they’re HIV infected, that they should try not to infect other people. And they should be put in treatment as soon as possible. Laura always had connections in the city with Marty Markowitz or other researchers who were sort of at the forefront of treatment issues. And so that was one thing that she’s always been proud of, and she should be, and that the people who do test positive at Columbia are put into really great treatment, really attentive, but also often cutting edge. So I don’t think that it was significantly different from now in terms of getting an HIV test, but there may have still been some holdover from, you know, the dark days of other diagnosis, but I do remember the main concern being that we tried to reach the people who are at most risk, get them tested and get them treated, right? It was different in like just on the surface though in that it wasn’t until 2005 that GHAP started doing in-house testing. So all the way up until 2005 what we would do is deliver the blood samples, preferably but completely without any biohazard (chuckle) concerns in like a little holding bank down to the department of health laboratories. And so there’d be like the work study student who would come at the end of each week.
Q: And take all the blood samples in the cooler?
Chiarilli: Yeah, exactly. And then they’d come back on, or pick them up on Monday or something like that. So people had to wait for a week in order to get their results back, right. Which I think is a really different mindset to wait for a week, and the counseling probably felt different too, because you’re going to be dealing with somebody’s anxiety that’s going to potentially linger for an entire week as opposed to one night. But I wouldn’t want to exaggerate. I don’t think that the number of infections per year were significantly different than they are now in 2001 when I started. I’d have to look back and see if that’s true. And I don’t think that the demographics were that different either. So, yeah, that’s my basic answer.
Q: Can you talk about becoming a coordinator?
Chiarilli: Yeah, sure. Sure. So when I started Ryan [Kull] was the coordinator, and Laura was the director. And then I can’t remember exactly what year this was, but pretty soon after that Ryan left. I think he finished his social work degree, and he was working in a private practice, I think, and maybe beginning post grad work, I don’t remember how soon that was afterwards. And two other advocates who had been advocates a little bit before me, and I can’t remember exactly, Amanda Crosier and Chipper Dean. They sort of, as a team, became the coordinator. Amanda was a post doc pre-med student, and Chipper was a Ph.D. student at TC in Psychology. And so that was sort of how it worked for a while. And I’m sure that Laura’s talked about this, but they did amazing work; they systematized GHAP in a way that it never really had been before. It got a lot of recognition at the health service. Actually I take back what I said earlier about the manual, because I think that they’re the ones who really put everything together in a single manual for the advocates that you used, for instance, when you were an advocate. They did a little research project, presented at the ACHA in New Orleans, the American College Health Association. And they’re really great. They really worked to make it a more quasi professional kind of group. But then Chipper was finishing his dissertation and he became a little bit more part time. And Amanda was applying to med school and got in. And so there was a call for further advocates, for another coordinator. And I wasn’t really thinking about it at first because personally I was writing my dissertation and I wasn’t sure 100% whether or not I was going to pursue something in academia in a traditional sense. So I didn’t put my name in the hat. I was still loving being a counselor and I was a part of it, but a number of things happened where I realized it was the end of my eight years as a graduate student, there was no more fellowship renewal. And I was going to lose my housing and all kinds of complicated things happened. And it just sort of occurred to me; why don’t I ask about this? I asked, but another friend, John Duresta, had already applied and was going to be the new coordinator. And then, I don’t know, a week later, I wish I could remember the timeline better, I got a phone call from Laura asking if I was still interested. And I was like, yes, more than you can ever know. Right? (Chuckle) So John had gotten a job, a full time job doing some sort of theater workshop stuff with students in Manhattan. And that’s when I became coordinator. That was in 2005. So beginning in May of 2005, throughout that summer, I sort of shadowed Amanda and spent the day in the office with her and we would review things and talk about how she did the training and the like. And then starting in the fall was the first semester that I was the coordinator.
Q: And you were training people.
Chiarilli: And I was training people, yeah. Yeah. In some way it was a natural, a little bit of a natural parallel step from teaching, because I had taught a lot. As a graduate student I taught music in Columbia many, many, many times. And I wasn’t uncomfortable in that position at all. And I’ve worked as an advocate for so long I hadn’t really thought about training people to do it. But putting two and two together it wasn’t that difficult for me. In fact the way I think I billed myself when I had to fill out the formal application was like, was that I have experience working with students as students, and as a counselor, and as an advocate I had experience working with students as sort of a mentor and a counselor. And I thought that I could bring all those perspectives together. I thought he was making something up a little bit, but anyway, it ended up working out, and I still sort of feel that way. I mean even today, when I can, I’m done with my Ph.D., I still teach every once in a while. And, you know, I really love the idea of interacting with students, very holistically, but you know what I mean when I say that.
Q: All right. So what was it like being coordinator in the beginning? Like after that shadowing period with Amanda?
Chiarilli: You know, it was really fun. It was really exciting. Amanda had done like 95% of the work along with Dr. Glenden and Laura, and Chipper, I believe, in terms of getting in-house testing, which was a big process, because the lab has to be certified for it and this and that. So that started the semester that I became coordinator, in November of 2005, that we did testing in-house and gave results back the next day. So that first semester, that was sort of one of the biggest, like events that occurred, it was a big sort of change in turnaround. So we would advertise that on campus, there were a number of things related to that. And I think Laura was excited too. She knew that I might be there for a long time and so together we decided to restart a project that had been going on in the ‘90s a bit, but before I was a real part of it, called the Next Generation Project. And this was an idea of connecting LGBT students with mentors in the community with the notion that the continuing infections among men in particular may have something to do with the kind of skipped generation that the younger people didn’t necessarily know older people either who were HIV infected, who had AIDS, or who knew people who had AIDS. And so there may not have been the sort of reality among the young people that AIDS was something that is real, that they need to be careful about, right? And so the Next Generation Project was an effort, in some way, to bridge that generation gap between the youngest people and the people who lived through the worst of AIDS, for the gay community, at least. And then also to try to provide real mentorship. So we had a giant party, I think in October of 2005, before the more distressed finances of the university, in Philosophy Hall, with like 150 students and catered by Columbia Catering, and lots of guests who would come and partake, and that was sort of our kickoff event for this mentoring project. So that was something we worked on for a few years for the early part of my tenure as the coordinator. And it was really useful. One other thing that I think is interesting, and probably different from your experience at Columbia, is that when I started counseling, and even when I started being a coordinator, there wasn’t as much sort of active LGBT space at Columbia. CQA wasn’t as sort of vocal or active on campus as it is now. If there was an office of multicultural affairs, I don’t know how old it is, I don’t know if the extent of LGBT presence at that point in time. And you think about now about genderevolution, and Q and all the different groups that exist on campus, they just weren’t there or as visible during those sort of early years. And so GHAP held a space. A lot more people would come to the office in the first couple of weeks of school, like with coming out, applying, like knowing how to be gay on campus, or what to do. And I think that it’s great, those sort of spaces have been assumed by other groups now. And so there’s so many opportunities. There are queer people on campus now. But GHAP used to really be central in all of that before I think the sort of boom of campus groups.
Q: Well, that’s interesting. It leads to my next question. Where do you see GHAP going? How do you see it evolving?
Chiarilli: You know, it is an interesting question in some way too, and I think the question of what role does GHAP have in terms of the LGBT community at large in Columbia. And, you know, we’ve done a couple of things in my time, tons of stuff before, but I’ll focus on what’s (been done) since I’ve been there. We started spending a lot more time learning about and training advocates to know about other STIs. Because we were having open discussions with people about their sexual history and talking about HIV prevention and transmission, but like it was sort of a natural step that questions about other STIs would arise. When, and maybe there was a little bit of a time lag here, but when HIV treatment, especially for kids at Columbia, became so powerful and effective, then you know, other STIs sort of assumed maybe a different sort of importance in that perspective. And so people had a lot more questions. And so, you know, we started doing some, in my first year even, we started doing some chart studies about Columbia health service and the numbers of STI infections and how sexual histories were taken. And that led to a giant study that we understood and published a project about asymptomatic gonorrhea and chlamydia, which are important for HIV infection, because having one of those infections makes tissue and mucus membranes much more susceptible to an HIV infection. And so we did a study of 200 people at the health service about IRV approval, and had it published in the Journal of American College Health. And, you know, so I think that sort of a research oriented wing, or whatever, of GHAP sort of reemerged in those really early days when Laura and Paul were doing those great conferences for lay people and writing the book and the like. There was an awful lot of that. And then there may have been a little bit of a quieter period. So that sort of research area seems to be one thing. Another thing, and the Next Generation Project, but another thing is we started recently co-facilitating two support groups. One is the coming out discussion group, which is really undergraduate geared, but for everybody, and that’s in conjunction with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and that’s been great. So it’s a group that meets twice a month that talks about coming out, challenges the concept of coming out, what does it mean to come out? And it’s for people who are thinking about these questions, either just starting to think about their own sexuality along these lines, or they’re just supportive of people. And then also a few years back I suggested that we start a graduate student and faculty group that was sort of akin to where I met my partner, it used to be called the Gay and Lesbian Academics of New York eons ago. And so this is called Queer Academics at Columbia. And it’s a monthly discussion group, and we can expand it to twice a month, I’m not sure. And it’s for graduate professional students from all of Columbia schools, to kind of meet other people. It’s co facilitated with people from Counseling and Psychological Services, and to share information about resources. The students often go out together afterwards for either drinks or dinner or something like this, and to talk about all kinds of topics that are sort of relevant to our community. It’s often been international, so like fascinating discussions about how do Spanish people think about gay marriage, for instance. Or what about all this sort of push for marriage equality internationally? So in some way it’s hard to sort of say a single direction that GHAP would sort of be going in, but we’ve been expanding out a little bit towards the research science end, and then also more towards the kind of campus support providing spaces for queer people.
Q: How would you say you might’ve been since you’ve started as the coordinator and being involved with the group?
Chiarilli: Yeah. Well, I think we’ve had a director in the health service, Dr. Steward, for almost as long as I’ve been there, I think now, in 2005 is when I think he came, maybe 2004. And he probably of all the previous administrators at health service was most clearly, was clearly the most supportive towards gay health issues. And so, you know, he’s been wonderful. He helped us move into an office that can accommodate me and the advocates at the same time as opposed to a little box where we were all sitting on top of each other basically. And so certainly in terms of having a legitimate institutional base at Columbia Health Service, that’s definitely the case. I mean it’s expected that Laura and, or Laura or I will make presentations to the medical providers and to the counseling service, and every year, if not every semester, to talk about LGBT health. And so I think that that’s, you know, it’s kind of a subtle change, but it’s definitely one of the biggest changes. Another thing that I think that I did just because of my own background as a graduate student and the like is the range of advocates I think has increased especially in terms of age range, and that there’s really a mix of undergraduate students and graduate students and from all the different schools. And I think it makes it fun for everyone. So we have social workers, CC. Engineering, I think we can say we’re short on, but engineers, if you want to join, that’s great. And so I don’t know, there always was a communal sense of GHAP, but I think I’d really like to push that as a space for people to hang out in the office, as a space to have GHAPpy hours, we could go on a hike, go bowling, do things as a group, so that the community of all the great students who are being advocates they feel like they are a part of something too. So I think that that’s one thing that’s definitely changed with the institutional recognition and with the bigger space, and with the fact that I’ve been around a long time.
Q: I think we covered it. Anything you want to add?
Chiarilli: No, I don’t think so. I mean I think it’s interesting in one way, like thinking about the younger generations, meaning the young kids now, and like when I was their age, or earlier in my time at GHAP, like people had talked about the name of our group for a long time, the Gay Health Advocacy Project, right? And the whole kind of identity of gay gets questioned a lot now, right? And is queer a better word? Is there a binary really at all? And, you know, I think that a lot of the groups that I setup come and have taken the lead on some of the more social and support community things at Columbia are really taking the lead on this. And there’s one thing that I want to do try to do with GHAP in the future, and that’s to continue to be as sort of inclusive and up to date as possible. Trans health is a big issue now. It always was, but people are recognizing it now, and so we’re trying to make steps to be as sort of inclusive as possible. We’re fighting with the name, but the name will never change unless it’s over Laura’s dead body or something.
Q: All right, anything else?
Chiarilli: Hmm, no.