The longest-serving volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic and co-founder of one of the first and longest-running gay men’s health clinics, Dr. Fred Strauss, died on Sunday, September 26, 2021 at his home in Oakland. 72. He took on HIV patients early in the AIDS epidemic and fought for LGBTQ reproductive rights. Fred was a compassionate caregiver, connecting with, listening to, and teaching patients and colleagues alike. In his 48 years in medicine he was a wonderful, kind 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 owned a grocery store. His upbringing was guided by Jewish cultural traditions brought 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 foods. Fred’s early interest in problem solving and puzzles led him to UC Berkeley in the late 1960s to study math and computer science. As a college student, he worked as a housing counselor in the campus men’s dormitory, Bowles Hall, nurturing lifelong friendships.
After graduation, Fred worked for a short period as a math teacher at a public school in the East Bay 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 at this time in 1973 that Fred began volunteering at the Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC). “It seemed like it had always been there,” thought 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 perform routine examinations, under the guidance of physicians, for things like colds, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and minor cuts or wounds. He helped run the clinic’s lab in his early years, helped with the clinic’s administration, and became a medic and the coordinator in the medical section, all before graduating from medical school.
While working as a BFC doctor in late 1975, Fred saw a client with an STD contracted at a gay 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 help herself, Fred knew this client’s experience with homophobia in health care was more the rule than the exception. After Fred helped that client find a supportive counselor, the client got back in touch and together with others they 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. The services were in the evening and after that all the volunteers went out to dinner together, creating a social space with no bar for volunteers and making the working relationships feel more like a family. It was one of the first community-run STI clinics for gays and bimen (two similar, unaffiliated programs opened around the same time in NYC, and another opened a few years later in Washington, DC), and the some from that period we are aware that this is still active today. Except for a shutdown 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 build 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 treating the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Despite 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 long way off. Fred continued to serve people 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 treat at the BFC. The wart clinic worked out of hours at a women’s health center in Oakland for several years, not turning down patients for lack of funds.
Fred supported the world’s first queer sperm bank, where he served as medical director. The program gave gay donors and lesbian recipients access to sperm banking services they couldn’t use anywhere else. For many years, Fred was also medical director at the BFC, and after retiring from the SFDPH, he continued to maintain his medical license to serve as a physician for the Berkeley Free Clinic.
When Fred retired from the Castro-Mission Health Center in 2013, one of his patients described him as an “AIDS hero” who not only championed non-judgmental health care, but did so with compassion and respect. “Fred never forced me to take an AIDS cocktail until I had good medical reasons for it, welcomed me with written questions and took notes during consultations, recognized the value of alternative medicine, including acupuncture and Reiki, and was a real partner in my care.”
In his retirement, Fred continued to help roll out the electronic health record system for the SFDPH and became certified as a tax preparer, enabling him to directly help low-income individuals and families access free tax assistance.
Fred was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer in 2001 and was treated through numerous surgeries and experimental radiation therapies. By the time his cancer became terminal in 2020, he had battled 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 use it to relieve their symptoms and improve comfort and quality of life. The day before he died, he and his wife, Mary, received a call to say that their efforts had paid off and that others at the hospice will be able to access the medication in the future through their insurance or through a compassionate access program that is set 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 at the Anything Goes Chorus, walking in the East Bay Regional Parks, and gardening. In his senior year, he watched TV shows and comedy from his childhood and often requested the Jewish comfort foods 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 want to honor Fred, the family encourages them to make a donation to the Berkeley Free Clinic and keep in mind that it supports the work of the Gay Men’s Health Collective.