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Tim Burak

Seattle Gay Clinic, Seattle-King County Public Health AIDS Prevention Project

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Tim Burak was born in Seattle in 1945 and grew up in White Center.  He received a B.A. from Western Washington State University and an M. A, in English from the University of Washington in 1970. He taught at Shorter College, a historically Black college in North Little Rock, Arkansas beginning in 1970, and in 1972, he moved back to Seattle in order to live more openly as a gay man.

Burak began working at the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health in 1974, coordinating the planning and operations for medical and dental clinics serving low-income families. He also was involved in setting up medical and dental screening clinics for incoming refugees from Southeast Asian countries after the end of the war in Viet Nam. During the campaign against Initiative 13 in the late seventies, he was involved in organizing Health Workers Against Initiative 13. 

At the time, Burak was the only openly gay man working at the Health Department, and he became interested in gay men’s health issues after having had some unfortunate experiences in his own department’s venereal disease clinic.  In those days, the V.D. clinic was housed in the same building as the Seattle Police Department headquarters, and there was still a great deal of mistrust between the gay community and the health department, going back to the 1940’s when venereal disease tracking was done using methods that blurred the lines between disease prevention and police actions.

When a group of community activists started the Seattle Gay Clinic in 1979, to provide an alternative to the Health Department’s V.D. clinic, Burak volunteered there, working on evenings and weekends, and served as a member of the clinic’s Board.  In the early 1980’s, when volunteers at the clinic began to see patients who showed signs and symptoms of what would later become known as AIDS, Burak worked to resolve tensions between the Health Department and the gay community in order find ways to collaborate and ensure that gay men would feel safe when seeking care in local medical and public health institutions. The Seattle Gay Clinic created a Directory of Gay-Sensitive Physicians, and enlisted a network of health care providers, many of whom would become leaders in the community response as local AIDS cases increased later in the 1980’s. 

Burak conceived and was a co-founder of the Chicken Soup Brigade, a spin-off of Seattle Gay Clinic’s outreach committee, which provided supportive services for people living with AIDS. He also was a member of the founding committee of the Northwest AIDS Foundation, which later merged with the Chicken Soup Brigade and is now called Lifelong AIDS Alliance.

By 1985, HIV was identified as the infectious agent that caused AIDS. Burak became Manager of Seattle-King County Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Project, having helped secure funding from the Centers for Disease Control for a demonstration project that would provide a clinic and a center for piloting and evaluating methods to prevent the spread of HIV. Stigma and misinformation about HIV and AIDS were still rampant in those days, and the project faced resistance from landlords and real estate agents who did not want to have people with this disease on their property.   Finally, a facility was found, and the AIDS Prevention Project was able to  begin its work and to expand its purview to include providing and evaluating education campaigns and services for populations beyond the gay community that were at risk for HIV infection, including injection drug users, sex-industry workers, communities of color, women at risk, and street youth. 

Burak took a break from HIV/AIDS work in 1995. He then served for several years as the Health Department’s liaison with the county-wide network on non-profit Community Health Centers, focusing on uninsured and underinsured patient populations. Then he returned to work as grants manager for several HIV/AIDS epidemiology research projects, retiring from Public Health in 2010.

Tim Burak shared his thoughts and memories of his involvement with AIDS activism with Kevin McKenna on July 22, 2014. To the right are video excerpts from the interview. The full interview is preserved in Special Collections Library, University of Washington.

Work on this interview was made possible by a grant from 4Culture/King County Lodging Tax.