Spotlight on History: Recognizing Health Center Leaders in LGBTQ Health Care, with Whitman-Walker Health

Community health centers are the backbone of the nation’s primary care system, driven by mission and mandate to meet local needs and serve vulnerable and at-risk individuals and families who have faced barriers to access. Among those special communities are people identifying as LGBTQ+   who today make up 10% of the US population. Historically, LGBTQ+ have been subject to systemic discrimination and have endured high rates of poverty, unemployment, and lack of insurance.[1] Among the prominent health centers focused on providing accessible, affirming care LGBTQ+ care is Whitman-Walker Health, in Washington DC.

Whitman-Walker Health has deep roots in the community and has operated continuously since 1973. The health center originated as the Gay Men’s VD Clinic in the basement of Georgetown Lutheran Church, and was officially chartered in 1978.[2] The center was named for Walt Whitman[3], a former D.C. resident and gay poet, and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker[4], a noted women's rights activist and Civil War-era physician in the District. In the early 1980s, the center was threatened by a deep financial crisis, and relocated to Adams Morgan. Simultaneously the first medical reports emerged about a mysterious virus affecting young gay men – what would come to be known as AIDS. To address the crisis, Whitman-Walker launched the AIDS Education Fund to provide information, counseling, and direct services to people with AIDS, and was awarded the first contract for AIDS services to start the DC AIDS Infoline.          

In 1984, the center launched its AIDS Evaluation Unit, becoming the first gay, community-based medical unit in the United States focused on AIDS. The health center launched a legal services program in 1986, the oldest medical-legal partnership in the country. In 1987, Whitman-Walker became one of the first three dental clinics in the country to serve people with HIV, and opened the Scott Harper House, a recovery house for gay individuals with substance use disorders. The center continued to expand its innovative services, opening the Stewart B. McKinney House in 1989, the first house for HIV-positive families. Whitman-Walker continued to fight the AIDS epidemic while reaffirming its commitment to lesbian and gay health and expanding its locations and services throughout the DC metropolitan region.

With federal Ryan White CARE Act funds, the health center was able to add transportation and interpreting services and hire a Spanish-speaking physician and full-time dentist.  In 2013, the center was designated a Federally Qualified Health Center. Its affiliated Whitman-Walker Institute is one of the country’s premiere organizations advancing research through clinical trials and community-driven applied research.[5]

Today Whitman-Walker Health provides an expansive scope of primary, preventive and specialty services, including gender-affirming care, youth and family services, dental and behavioral health care, legal services and insurance navigation throughout the District, including at its new flagship site in Ward 8.[6] By integrating clinical services and collaborating with policymakers and research scientists, Whitman-Walker continues to innovate in the delivery of care critical to supporting its neighbors and the LGBTQ+ community.


[1] Human Rights Campaign (n.d.).  Understanding Poverty in the LGBTQ+ Community. Accessed March 8, 2024 at

[2] Whitman-Walker (n.d.). Our History. Accessed March 8, 2024 at

[3] PBS (2019). Walt Whitman's Life. Accessed March 8, 2024 at

[4] National Women’s History Museum (n.d.). Mary Edwards Walker. Accessed March 8, 2024 at

[5] Whitman-Walker (n.d.). Research at Whitman-Walker. Accessed March 8, 2024 at

[6] Whitman-Walker (n.d.). Max Robinson Center. Accessed March 8, 2024 at