Dr. Fred Strauss, the longest-serving Berkeley Free Clinic volunteer and co-founder of one of the country’s first and longest-running gay clinics, died at his home in Oakland on Sunday, September 26, 2021. He was 72. He was taking on HIV patients in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and fought for the reproductive rights of LGBTQ people. Fred was a compassionate provider, connecting with, listening to, and teaching both patients and colleagues. In his 48 years in medicine, he was a wonderful, gentle and caring mentor and friend to many.
Born on October 8, 1948, Fred grew up the youngest of four brothers in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where his parents ran a grocery store. His upbringing was guided by Jewish cultural traditions, brought about by his family’s recent immigration experience, alongside stories of surviving World War II, which led to his lifelong love of Jewish comedy and comfort food. Fred’s early interest in solving problems and puzzles led him to UC Berkeley in the late 1960s to study math and computer science. As a student, he worked as a residency counselor at the campus men’s dormitory, Bowles Hall, where he nurtured lifelong friendships.
After graduation, Fred briefly worked as a math teacher at an East Bay public school before deciding to return to college to study medicine. He was accepted into one of the first cohorts of the UC Berkeley – UCSF Joint Medical Program. It was during this period in 1973 that Fred began volunteering at the Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC). “It seemed like it had been there forever,” reflected Fred during the BFC’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2019, “but it had only been around for four years.”
Fred loved and felt rewarded by the basic form of medical care practiced at the volunteer-run BFC. He was part of the team that recruited and trained community members to work, under the supervision of doctors, on routine screenings for things like the common cold, sexually transmitted infections (STDs), and minor cuts or injuries. He helped run the clinic’s lab in his early years, helped with the clinic’s administration, and became a medic and medical department coordinator, all before graduating from medical school.
While working as a BFC medic in late 1975, Fred saw a client who had contracted an STI at a gay men’s bathhouse. The client had gone to Kaiser for help, but was physically assaulted by a homophobic doctor. As a bisexual who had sought non-judgmental sexual care himself, Fred knew that this client’s experience with homophobia in health care was more the rule than the exception. After Fred helped that client find a support provider, the client got back in touch and they and others designed a sex-positive STI clinic for the gay and bisexual community.
One Sunday in 1976, Fred and the crew of gay and bisexual community members they had trained opened the Gay Men’s Health Collective (GMHC) for services. Services were in the evening and then all the volunteers went out to dinner together, creating a social space for volunteers and making the working relationships feel more like a family. It was one of the first community-run STI clinics for gay and bisexual men (two similar, unrelated programs opened in NYC around the same time, and another opened a few years later in Washington, D.C.), and the only from that period we are aware that it is still active today. Except for a closure at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the GMHC has been open every Sunday since its inception and has seen thousands of people for STI testing, counseling and treatment. The program has enabled hundreds of queer volunteers to gain experience and inspiration at the GMHC to advance into careers in nursing, medicine, research and social services in the US and abroad.
After graduating from medical school, Fred began a career as a physician at San Francisco’s Health Center 1, later renamed the Castro-Mission Health Center, which became an epicenter for the treatment of San Francisco’s AIDS epidemic. Despite the unknown risks of working with the then unexplored virus, Fred had the support of his family to work tirelessly in San Francisco and at the GMHC with people affected by HIV at a time when survival was a gamble. Fred continued to serve people living with HIV throughout his career with the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
In the 1980s, Fred and several GMHC volunteers established a private clinic to treat cases of genital warts that were too complex and time consuming to handle at the BFC. The wart clinic worked off hours at a women’s health center in Oakland for several years and did not turn down patients for lack of funds.
Fred supported the world’s first gay sperm bank, where he was medical director. The program gave gay donors and lesbian recipients access to sperm banking services they couldn’t access elsewhere. Fred also served as medical director with the BFC for many years, and after retiring from the SFDPH, he continued to retain his medical license to serve as a physician for the Berkeley Free Clinic.
When Fred retired from Castro-Mission Health Center in 2013, one of his patients described him as an “AIDS hero” who not only advocated for non-judgmental health care, but did so with compassion and respect. “Fred never pushed me to get into an AIDS cocktail until I had good medical reasons to do so, welcomed me by asking written questions and taking notes during consultations, recognized the value of alternative medicine, including acupuncture and Reiki, and was a true partner in my care.”
After his retirement, Fred continued to help roll out the electronic health record system for the SFDPH, and became certified as a tax preparer so he could directly help low-income individuals and families access free tax assistance.
Fred was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer in 2001 and was treated in the form of numerous surgeries and experimental radiation therapies. By the time his cancer became terminal in 2020, he had been battling it for 20 years. Near the end of his life, Fred fought to get an expensive cancer drug, Sandostatin, released for palliative use so that people in hospice could access it to relieve their symptoms and increase comfort and quality of life. improve. The day before he died, he and his wife, Mary, received a phone call to say that their efforts had paid off and that others in the hospice will have access to the medication in the future through their insurance or through a compassionate program. access set up by the manufacturer.
Fred had two children, Tessa and Jesse, with his first wife, Lili Shidlovski. A proud and loving Zeyde (grandfather in Yiddish), Fred and his second wife, Mary Dermody, enjoyed time with Tessa and her wife Micaela Reinstein’s twins, Ever and Jude. Fred was the stepfather of Mary’s daughter, Mirae. Fred loved singing with his friends in the Anything Goes Chorus, hiking in the East Bay Regional Parks, and gardening. In his senior year, he watched TV shows and comedies from his childhood and regularly asked for the Jewish comfort food of his childhood – raisin challah and matzo ball soup. He died at his home, wearing a tie-dye t-shirt, surrounded by family. If people are interested in honoring Fred, the family encourages them to make a donation to the Berkeley Free Clinic, noting that it is to support the work of the Gay Men’s Health Collective.