Founded in 1982, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation was one of the first organizations formed to address the “mysterious new illness” disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual men. First known as the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation, SFAF has gone on to become one of the largest and most respected HIV service organizations in the country. Over 25,000 people currently rely on its programs and services per year, and millions more utilize its advocacy tools as well as its online information offerings. So, many may find it surprising that the organization’s new CEO, Dr. Tyler TerMeer, is the first Black individual and only the second living with HIV to helm the foundation in its 40-year history.
“I think I was also surprised, [yet] not surprised that I’m the first person of color to lead the foundation,” admits TerMeer. “Not surprised, because, you know, there are very few Black executives in the nonprofit sector leading organizations. And that number becomes drastically smaller when you start to narrow down to specific fields of our sector. Personally, I have taken some time to think about my nearly 18 years now of living with HIV and how unbelievably rewarding that period of time has been for me to cultivate a group of peers that are also Black and brown folks around the country that have been a system of support.”
Before taking on his new role at SFAF on February 14, Dr. TerMeer served as CEO at Cascade AIDS Project, the largest community-based provider of HIV services in Oregon and southwest Washington, for over seven years. During his time there, he helped the organization grow from 55 employees to over 185, expanded from a one-office location to seven across two states, oversaw a merger with Our House of Portland, and launched Prism Health to serve the primary care and mental health needs of the local LGBTQ+ community.
Before that, TerMeer served as the director of public policy and government relations at AIDS Resource Center Ohio and as the director of the Ohio AIDS Coalition. In 2012, he was honored by the White House as one of the Nation’s Emerging LGBTQ+ Leaders and in 2013 was chosen by the White House to be a part of the Nation’s Emerging Black Leadership program. In addition, he has served on the board of directors for Positive Pedalers, an HIV-positive cycling group, and has participated in AIDS/LifeCycle’s annual fundraising ride 11 times. He also holds a Ph.D. in public policy and administration from Walden University.
TerMeer cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of Prism Health, CAP’s LGBTQ+ Federally Qualified Health Center, in 2017
TerMeer says that now, especially as a leader in the HIV community, he tries to always remain conscious of the fact that he stands on the shoulders of the many brave souls who came before him in the fight against HIV and its stigma.
“I know that I am able to walk in, almost 40 years into the foundation’s history, as their first BIPOC CEO because of the fight for life, access, and dignity that those before me [fought for] — those who we lost to the epidemic and those who have survived that continue to be a part of the momentum of the movement going forward…. Also, just generations of Black people that fought for our rights and a place at the table — my place at the table. It’s a historic moment for the foundation, but also just such an incredible honor.”
Now 38, TerMeer says he didn’t necessarily foresee a future in the nonprofit world and was initially drawn to the arts as a young person, particularly the theater world. Looking back, though, he says it makes perfect sense of where he ended up, since he was “raised by strong Black women who really instilled in me the values that have carried with me through my personal and professional life — of really wanting to give back to the community.”
He grew up in Dublin, Ohio, a small suburb of Columbus that he says is “really only famous for being the home of Wendy’s [fast-food restaurants].” It was there that TerMeer says he received a solid upbringing by two key figures in his life: his mother and grandmother.
“I was raised by my mother, who is a strong Black woman, and her mother and her sisters, after my dad and mother divorced when I was about 2 years old,” he recalls. “I split time very early on between my mom and my dad, who were an interracial couple — my father is white, and my mother is Black. And unfortunately, when I was pretty young…my father went to prison for a number of years, which was a very life-changing experience for our family.”
TerMeer and his mother, Terrie, attending the Kaleidoscope Youth Center’s 25th Anniversary Gala, where he was the keynote speaker
TerMeer explains that this experience opened his eyes to racism and how one is perceived as a Black person in this country. It also forced him to grow up fast.
“Often when I tell that story…when I say one of my parents went to jail, they assume it must be a Black person in my family, but in fact in my experience it was not, it was my father. I think his struggle with alcohol [and] with gambling — ultimately, the struggles that landed him in prison — forced my sister and I to kind of grow up a little bit faster…. I think my hopes and dreams were to find community, to find a sense of stability.”
Fortunately, TerMeer says the support of the strong Black women in his life helped him keep his head above water through those tumultuous adolescent years, and ultimately gave him an interest in politics and community.
“I was really raised in a political household,” he says. “My mom worked in local and state politics all throughout my childhood. I just really saw strong examples of what leadership and true community looks like. My original path was not nonprofit, actually. I thought I was going to go off to New York and work in the arts. I have a bachelor of fine arts in theatrical design from Otterbein University, a small liberal arts college in Ohio. I thought I was going to be a stage manager and that this was my path in life.”
However, as he grew into adulthood, he discovered a whole new path to follow.
“I think as I was in college, I really learned a lot about myself,” he says. “I finally felt comfortable enough to own various parts of my identity and the intersections of those identities that I sat at as a Black gay man — and then as someone who learned about their HIV-positive status in March of 2004, as I was entering my senior year of college. In that moment, for me — as one of my dear friends in this field would have said when he was alive — HIV in some ways became a beginning, not an end. I think it opened up pathways for me to dive into those values that were instilled upon me by my grandmother. And I really was able to be fortunate enough to have the support system around me to dig deep and to use this new life-changing diagnosis as a moment of opportunity to give back — especially to a community of folks at a local HIV organization, very similar to San Francisco AIDS Foundation, that helped me pick the pieces of my life back up and set me on a path towards stability. And also the ability to thrive with my disease rather than view it as a life-changing obstacle that I could not overcome.”
TerMeer then changed career directions, starting as the administrative assistant to a CEO of an HIV organization and working his way up from “frontline positions” to management. Then in 2014, he landed his first CEO role at Portland’s Cascade AIDS Project. Today, he is focused on his newest task at hand, leading SFAF through 2022 and beyond.
TerMeer striking a pose with CAP’s board vice president Bil Spigner (left) and former board member Brian Buck (right) at an AIDS Walk Northwest photo shoot
The organization’s biggest challenge is dealing with our latest global pandemic, COVID-19, and how it has affected folks living with HIV, TerMeer says.
“All of the other social drivers that have fueled the [HIV] epidemic for decades have only been exacerbated during this time of global pandemic. So food insecurity, poverty, access to the care and treatment that folks need and deserve in a safe and affirming way. All of those things — housing instability, mental health, access to programs that are affirming for drug users…have been a challenge for quite some time, but our system has been stressed even more during the pandemic. And so I think in this moment of a pandemic — which, by the way, for people living with HIV, is not the first pandemic they’ve lived in — is the moment where we really need to dig deep and figure out how we’re going to support those communities that have traditionally been furthest from access and opportunity.”
TerMeer says he also wants to put more focus on programs and services for long-term survivors and people aging with HIV, since this is now the largest group of people with the virus.
“Across the country, more than 50 percent of those living with HIV are now coming close to or are over the age of 50. And we need to figure out ways to continue to be responsive and supportive of a community that is aging with their virus. We need to continue the hard work that has been happening at San Francisco AIDS Foundation for a number of years, but certainly had doubled down on in this time of dueling pandemics, between COVID-19 and racial reckoning in our country. [We need] to figure out how this journey of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion can continue for the organization.”