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    Coming Out Stories: How an LGBT Youth Group Changed My Life

    By Joe Hollendoner, MSW–

    After surviving a childhood during which I was regularly made fun of for being effeminate, I suppressed my feelings of being different because the homophobia that I was surrounded by caused me to think being gay was a bad thing. At the age of 16, however, I could no longer deny my true identity and found the courage to come out as gay. Although I felt a great amount of relief after finally accepting who I was, life, unfortunately, didn’t get any easier for me. 

    The verbal and physical bullying I experienced at my all-boys Catholic high school in the suburbs of Chicago increased significantly. In fact, one day it hit a breaking point when a group of guys began physically attacking me in the hallways. After their punches stopped, I ran down to my school principal’s office in tears, demanding that he do something to help.

    The “help” he told me that he’d offer me was to pray for me. 

    I knew at that moment that I could either sink into a depression or find support. So, thanks to the new thing called the world wide web, I discovered an LGBT youth group not far from my home.

    I eventually summoned the courage to attend the group and doing so changed my life forever. I remember the first image I saw was a group of other young people sitting under a rainbow flag and laughing. In that instant, I knew that I had found my community; I was safe, and, most importantly, I could be myself.

    Because of the transformational experience I had, I knew that I wanted to give back to my community everything that I had been given. I learned about the profession of social work as it was a social worker who staffed the group I attended, and knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the field. After receiving my bachelor and master degrees in social work, and after a long history of working within the field of HIV/AIDS, which was also inspired by an adult volunteer I met at that group, I joined the staff of San Francisco AIDS Foundation in May 2016. 

    San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) is an organization that has been there since the start of the AIDS crisis and will be here for our community until the epidemic is over.

    That’s one reason I am proud to be part of SFAF. It means I get to work alongside people of incredible talent and dedication. As we work to dismantle oppression and advocate for health justice and race equity, we remain committed to providing essential services even during the COVID-19 pandemic because we know that people living with and affected by HIV need us now more than ever.

    A full schedule of services that are available, including PrEP, PEP, HIV clinical care for sexually-transmitted infections, and the provision of harm reduction supplies is available at

    Joe Hollendoner, MSW, is the Chief Executive Officer at San Francisco AIDS Foundation. He has spent the last two decades as a leader in community health, previously serving as First Deputy Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, the nation’s third-largest health department, and in executive leadership roles at AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and at Howard Brown Health. He lives in San Francisco with his husband Bill and two pups, Bolt and Thor.

    Published on January 14, 2021