AIDS Still Kills

Inspired by Fierstein, debates about safe sex ads and barebacking sex

In an indication of the widespread concern about rising HIV infections among gay and bisexual men, several hundred people turned out for a town meeting to discuss AIDS, unsafe sex, party drugs and how they might respond to the resurgent HIV epidemic in their community.

“For 20 years we’ve known how to prevent this disease and we’re still giving it to our children,” said Harvey Fierstein, who moderated the November 16 event held at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.

Dan Carlson and Bruce Kellerhouse, the event organizers, recruited Fierstein after he published “The Culture of Disease,” a July 31 editorial in the New York Times.

“I wanted to know why there is no support for staying HIV-negative,” Fierstein said at the November 16 event. “Do we want to form a new grassroots movement to put health back into our community?”

In their opening remarks, Carlson and Kellerhouse called for a dialogue about HIV and gay men while they noted the absence of prevention messages directed at their peers.

“Since the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, conversations about HIV, especially public ones, have evoked strong emotions, opinions, passions, positions, controversies, and, at times, even agreements,” said Kellerhouse, a psychologist. “We should expect no less for this public conversation and that’s O.K., because most anything would be better than the silence, the deadly silence, that seems to surround HIV transmission and prevention these days in New York City.”

The audience shared that view. People lined up for the event more than an hour before its 7 p.m. start and five minutes before it began, organizers stopped letting people into the room. The auditorium doors were left open so those standing outside could hear the proceedings. At least two people came from Boston to attend.

Carlson, whose own episode of unsafe sex last year formed part of the motivation to create the event, mirrored what many in the crowd would say later—many gay men see a problem in their community.

“The genesis of this event is no different than any other grassroots effort,” Carlson said. “It has evolved out of…the need for a change in how we as a community deal with rising new HIV infections among our members, a rise in raw and unprotected sex and an overall complacency in our approach to preventing the disease. And, a change in the lack of a consistent, cohesive and aggressive prevention strategy here in New York City.”

Judging by a small number of interviews with audience members prior to the event, the crowd had not come to hear solutions.

Rafael Hernandez, 37, noted that powerful new drugs had made HIV seem less threatening. The use-a-condom-every-time strategy was “too narrow,” he said.

“If it’s a reiteration of the safe sex message then I don’t want to hear it,” Hernandez said. “I’m really hoping we look behind the safe sex message.”

Justin Hall, 30, came to hear the dialogue and said, “I’m not expecting to get answers. The issue needs to be discussed. Twenty years into the epidemic why are infections still rising?”

The first hour of “Challenging the Culture of Disease: A Panel Discussion with Harvey Fierstein,” as the event was titled, was a discussion among Carlson, Kellerhouse and five other panelists. While there was general agreement that gay and bisexual men of all ages and colors face a problem that conversation showed that the AIDS epidemic has become very complicated.

Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist who has been HIV- positive for 18 years, talked about his three-year struggle with crystal meth addiction and how that led him to bareback sex. He said that AIDS groups and city government must respond to crystal’s role in driving unsafe sex and new HIV infections.

For Dennis deLeon, president of the Latino Commission on AIDS, and Michael Roberson, director of services at People of Color in Crisis, a Brooklyn-based AIDS service group, crystal was not the problem. The men they serve need a sense of self worth first.

African-American men may encounter racism among their white gay peers and homophobia from their religious institutions, according to Roberson. “We oftentimes have to live in our own communities,” he said. “How do you expect people to protect themselves when they have been told that their very existence is an abomination.”

The commission is publishing a series of ads in New York City’s Spanish-language press to counter anti-gay messages from Latino churches.

“We believe we have to attack homophobia if we are going to address sexual relations,” deLeon said.

Money is a problem. Prevention efforts have dwindled, according to deLeon. That is partly the result of private and government funding drying up.

“The wallets of wealthy gay men, with the exception of Henry, have closed,” deLeon said. “I don’t know what to do except government money.”

Henry van Ameringen, who was a sponsor of the town meeting, has supported many gay and AIDS groups. He was sitting in the front row at the event.

Roberson said that HIV prevention must consider the entirety of gay men’s lives. For instance, condom-less sex might make a man feel closer to his partner and that may be more important than being safe.

“It means intimacy for a lot of folks, it means community for a lot of folks,” Roberson said.

Dr. David Kim, a physician in private practice and the medical director at the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV-AIDS, said that prevention messages had not evolved. Two HIV-negative gay men in a monogamous relationship, for instance, don’t need to be told to use condoms.

“I don’t like the message of practice safe sex for the rest of your life,” Kim said.

A brief dispute came in response to an ad campaign run by San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project that features images of the distended stomachs and distorted bodies that can result from the side effects of some AIDS drugs.

Jeff Jones, program coordinator at the agency, said the campaign was meant to counter the notion that AIDS was a manageable disease. An audience member and deLeon objected to the campaign.

“Do we have to rely on diseased gay men to have effective prevention?” deLeon asked.

Staley supported the campaign. “I think we’ve got to live with a little bit of truth here,” he said. “HIV is not something that people should go out there and get.”

Audience comments came in the evening’s second hour. As is typical of these sorts of events, remarks ranged broadly, but with a handful of exceptions, audience members said the gay community has a problem and it must respond.

Several men in their 20s called for more attention to the needs of their peers. There were repeated demands for more pressure on the government to respond. Towards the end of the event one man said, “When I was a young gay man the thing that gave me a sense of community was, sadly, the AIDS epidemic. We did something about this before. We can do something about this again.”

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