Jeff Sheehy, the First Openly HIV-Positive Member of San Francisco’s Board of
Supervisors, Fights for Long-Term Survivors, Treatment Access & Affordable Healthcare for All
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Michael Kerner
When Mayor Edwin Lee swore him in as the newest member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on January 8, 2017, as the new representative of District 8 (which includes the Castro gayborhood), Jeff Sheehy made history as the first openly HIV-positive member of the Board which governs the City and County of San Francisco.
“Jeff Sheehy has spent his entire life fighting for his community and for what he believes is right, and I know that as Supervisor, Jeff will be a proven fighter for the residents of his district, and for our entire City,” said the mayor. The District 8 position on the Board opened when former supervisor Scott Weiner won election to the California State Senate last November.
A native of Waco, Texas, Jeff moved to San Francisco after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1988. Since his arrival, he has dedicated his life to community service. A long-time activist and crusader for LGBTQ equality, Jeff was a member of ACT UP/San Francisco, served as president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and worked as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s adviser on HIV/AIDS and as a victim advocate in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. Beginning in 2000, Jeff was Director of Communications at the UCSF AIDS Research Institute. Sheehy is also a founding member of the Steering Committee of San Francisco’s Getting to Zero Consortium, whose goal is to make the City the first to achieve the UNAIDS goals of zero new infections, zero HIV deaths, and zero HIV stigma.
In recognition of his HIV/AIDS advocacy, Jeff has received the Human Rights Campaign’s Leadership Award, the Caped Crusader Award from Equality California, the Tomas Fabregas AIDS Hero Award, and the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for Public Service. He lives in the Glen Park section of San Francisco his husband, Bill Berry, and their daughter, Michelle.
We sat down to talk in Jeff’s new City Hall office.
Hank Trout: When did you test HIV-positive?
Jeff Sheehy: In 1997, almost exactly twenty years ago. I was President of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club by then.
This seat you’re holding now has been held by some very prominent folks—Mark Leno, Harry Britt, and of course Harvey Milk. Do you find that history daunting or inspiring or…?
I find it inspiring, not daunting at all. I mean, I have made significant contributions myself over time, beginning with securing the equal benefits ordinance, and I think my HIV work has been pretty good.
It certainly has been! You’re the first HIV-positive supervisor that San Francisco has had. Do you think being HIV-positive might influence your positions and decisions here on the Board?
Well, it certainly gives me a different frame of reference. For instance, I was in ACT UP. So I bring a very vigorous approach to dealing with people who cheered when AIDS first hit, and there are still people around who have never really shaken that attitude that somehow this is God’s will and that people who have HIV are getting what they “deserve.” And [being positive] gives me a tremendous sense of solidarity with people who have HIV not just in San Francisco, not just in the United States, but with people who have HIV all over the world. As you know, the HIV/AIDS community responded on a global level.
I am particularly interested in what happens to the long-term survivor community, which is my community. These are people who—really, until recently, with the work of folks like Tez Anderson at Let’s Kick A.S.S. and the great supplement that Erin Allday wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle called “Last Men Standing”—a lot of people had forgotten. We’ve just started to get organized. Sixty percent of the people in San Francisco who are living with HIV are over the age of fifty.
So that also affects me because it’s not just people with HIV who are getting older and facing new challenges. We have a large community of LGBT people who are, frankly, HIV-negative long-term survivors, y’know? There are all kinds of long-term survivors, but all of us suffered. We wouldn’t have made it through the epidemic without our lesbian sisters, right?
What specific kinds of things can the City do to address issues facing long-term survivors?
For one, the Golden Compass Program at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital is a great start, especially for people with HIV. It’s not just treating someone’s HIV; you have to look comprehensively at all the healthcare issues for us—as long-term survivors, we have bone issues, cardiovascular issues, metabolic issues… neurological issues….dental issues, vision services. And of course there is also the social isolation, which I think is dramatic among a lot of folks in our community. And I don’t think it’s just long-term survivors, by the way, that isolation is directly linked to the loss we have all suffered. People have had difficulty sustaining circles of friends and chosen family, no matter how you choose to define “family,” which has always been fluid for us.
Housing, for instance, is obviously another big need. I think we need to look at models for senior housing. One of the programs that I’m trying to enhance that has been developed is a “small site” program. This is a program whereby the City buys these small buildings, four, six, eight-unit buildings. A non-profit then runs those buildings, the rents are stabilized at below-market rates, the rent controls remain in force, and no one is evicted. And then if a resident should leave, there are vacancy controls in place so that the rent doesn’t jump up to market rates, it stays permanently affordable. It maintains affordable housing in the neighborhood.
I know you’ve done a lot of work with the Getting to Zero Consortium.
Yes, I was one of the founders of Getting to Zero. We started working on that in 2013. It started at a Town Hall on World AIDS Day. A couple years earlier Ward 86 [the AIDS Ward at ZSFGH] had become the first provider to treat newly diagnosed HIV-positive patients on diagnosis. The longer you go without treating the HIV, the more damage the untreated virus does to the organ systems in your body. That’s when Ward 86 started saying that, based on their clinical experience, even though they didn’t have the hard evidence, they couldn’t justify withholding medications. So they started treating everybody on diagnosis. [Ward 86 continues its policy of treatment on diagnosis.] It’s really one of the key planks of Getting to Zero. Improving PrEP access has been another, but most important is getting people into treatment immediately after diagnosis. And the whole effort has been buttressed by the Affordable Care Act. Because you could get insurance through the Medicaid expansion—and Medi-Cal covers the full cost of PrEP. So the cost was no barrier to getting PrEP. So that’s the framework—that’s how Getting to Zero started.
What kinds of things can you, as a politician here in one city, do to combat the cuts to Medicaid and the ACA that we expect from the Trump-Pence administration?
There are three separate challenges. One is sanctuary city status and the threats to defund us in some way because of that. And of course we’re committed to sustaining our sanctuary city status and taking care of and protecting our immigrant brothers and sisters, and we’re not backing down on that—there’s no one in city government who is suggesting otherwise. The second threat is, as you mentioned, the destruction of the Affordable Care Act and the Medicaid expansion. The third threat is the Trump budget. We’ve already seen the first pass. So we’re preparing. I’m on the Budget Committee, which will be looking specifically to fill the gaps that are caused by what happens in Washington. We may have to look at new sources of revenue. But we can’t lose our healthcare safety net. It really is a daunting threat. But it’s a challenge we have to rise to the occasion for.
I’m sure you will.
For more information about photographer Michael Kerner, log on to: www.kernercreative.com.
Hank Trout is an Editor at Large at A&U. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.