A Fight for Community Connections

How a desire to fight depression led to nurturing information-sharing online

by Paul Margolis

Photo courtesy P. Margolis
Photo courtesy P. Margolis

One week after graduating high school, I escaped my small Ohio town for college. Upon coming out, my family rejected me, which fired up my determination to succeed and I graduated with a master’s degree in hospital administration at the age of twenty-three. However, I was unaware of the homophobia and discrimination I would experience in both Miami and Houston, cities where I found work. I once more escaped and began a new life and career in San Francisco in 1979.

In January 2000, I lost my third partner in seven years to AIDS. Diagnosed with HIV in 1985, I began disability in 2002 after a long career at AT&T. My primary enemy was fatigue and I fell into severe depression. I chose to volunteer since nonprofits are forgiving of their employees when side effects from HIV medications keep them from showing up on time. Volunteering was fun and these interactions brought me new acquaintances.

In 2011, a volunteer position reserving space in windows provided by Walgreens to San Francisco LGBT nonprofits at 18th and Castro Streets became available. These windows are set aside for nonprofits to display posters, etc., to raise awareness and promote their upcoming fundraising events at this very busy intersection in the gayborhood. Soon after taking over this position, I realized that since reservations for the windows only last a short period of time, it was necessary to create an online resource to promote multiple events simultaneously.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, someone I would meet and work with on this project, David Hatcher, was working through his own particular struggles with living with HIV. David had been diagnosed with HIV in 2000. In 2012 he was diagnosed with HAND (HIV Associated Neurological Disorders), with symptoms including short-term memory loss, decline in executive reasoning (decision making), and difficulties with spatial awareness. About two years in as Director of Global Digital Operations at SONY (David has degrees in computer science and artificial intelligence), the HAND symptoms began to manifest. With the assistance of doctors and staff at the Jeffery Goodman Clinic the progression of symptoms stopped but were irreversible. In 2013 David went on permanent disability.

In February 2015 I met David on a gay cruise. Over dinner I told him about OurTownSF.org,ourtownsf-logo the resource guide I started, and David tells me now, “it checked all the boxes for me since I had been wanting to volunteer my time and give something back.” Later that year, he launched OurTownLA.org. The site itself was easy to set up since the gay-owned hosting company, www.Localon.com, used OurTownSF.org as a template. David says “putting together the nonprofit listings was interesting and very informative. As a gay man we mostly concern ourselves with the G in the LGBT. The LBT have communities, needs, gatherings and organizations that I never knew about.”

Now approaching its third year, OurTownSF.org continues to be a resource guide with connections to over 300 San Francisco LGBT nonprofit service agencies, arts and athletic groups, all organized under twenty categories. Visitors find vital services as well as volunteer and donor opportunities. Under the Wellbeing tab, fifty groups are listed serving those with HIV/AIDS. The site receives over 2,000 visitors per month and continues to grow. I have heard several success stories including those newly diagnosed HIV-positive finding services on the site.

At the suggestion of my friends, I’ve developed my skills in photography, which supplements attracting users to the website. I attend three to four events per week and most times receive an extra press pass. I bring my volunteers from the website or my new domestic partner. My photographs are especially popular since I post them within a few hours of the event on the website plus Facebook and Twitter. Recently I became a contributing photographer at a local gay newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Times, with photographs taken for OurTownSF.org. While the website I created provides a service, I enjoy my photography and attending events celebrating all the hues of the LGBT rainbow. I meet passionate and talented people who dedicate their time, many as volunteers, to serve those in need.

What began as a desire to fight depression and loneliness has helped me connect my community, brought me new computer and photography skills and a sense of self-worth and a love life.

For more information, log on to: www.OurTownSF.org and www.OurTownLA.org.

Paul Margolis is a long-time San Francisco resident who is formerly a member of the HIV Planning Council, a founding member of Rainbow Toastmasters, and a current Castro Ambassador. His dedication to the LGBT community is demonstrated by his founding and full-time volunteer position at OurTownSF.org. Several of his photographs for the website were among those chosen for a retrospective of San Francisco LGBT life at the Harvey Milk Photo Center in June 2016.