Following crowded town meeting, questions about commitment to stopping HIV
At the February 8 town meeting on crystal meth, HIV and gay men, one audience member lodged a complaint during the audience comment portion of the event.
“I really struggle with these forums because so many intelligent people come and leave bereft of next steps,” said a man who gave the name Eric. He was later identified as Eric Altman, a senior staffer at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, though an agency spokesman said Altman was not speaking for GMHC.
Harvey Fierstein, the moderator, responded saying the earlier November 16 town meeting on gay men and HIV started conversations and the crystal forum would do that as well. He described one that took place backstage among three performers in “Hairspray,” the Broadway show that Fierstein stars in. Fierstein then fired at AIDS groups.
“The organizations that are in place and have been in place for 20 years have not ended this crisis,” he said. “It ain’t working.”
Dan Carlson, who organized the town meetings with Bruce Kellerhouse, defended the events saying they had prompted discussions across the city. In a follow up interview, Carlson was more critical.
“I find it rather curious that someone who is in a position to make something happen is saying that,” he said. “This is a person who works in an organization that can do something about crystal meth and HIV. He is leaving a forum about crystal bereft of ideas… He leaves there with no knowledge about what to do.”
The exchange between Altman and Fierstein illustrated the potential for conflict between government and community-based health organizations and those who have charged that those groups are failing to respond to the HIV risks posed by crystal. Some community members are trying to fill that vacuum by effectively rebuilding the HIV prevention infrastructure that responded to AIDS in the early 80s.
Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist who, with Vincent Gagliostro, funded anti-crystal ads that have been running on Chelsea phone booths since January, said that community groups had blown it.
“I don’t why they’ve been negligent on the issue,” he said. “It could be because these are large bureaucracies now where change happens very, very slowly or it could be because this issue was considered politically dangerous to be vocal about.”
Staley’s ads have been criticized because they are seen in some circles as attacking crystal meth users.
“You see already that my ads have been met with controversy,” he said. “All I know is that [crystal] is a major issue for gay health these days and they should have been out in front of it.”
Many of the people who attended the February 8 forum said they had come to get information or proposals for actions that they could use to battle the drug.
Jim Feinberg, a social worker with a major city hospital, said he had come to hear solutions he could apply in his work.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of infections among the young, gay male population because of crystal meth,” he said.
He hoped the event would generate a response to the drug.
“I don’t see too much of that going on,” Feinberg said. “It’s an issue that’s being swept under the carpet… It’s an epidemic that few people are talking about, few people are recognizing.”
Daniel Scolnick, a computer programmer, was once involved in AIDS activism and he was looking for something concrete.
“I’d like to find out how to get some actions together,” he said.
One man, Franco Santiago, had been involved with a woman who was addicted to crystal. He had come to learn about the drug in case he should ever confront that problem again.
“I would like to know as much as possible,” he said. “I would like to be better prepared in case something like that happens again.”
There are responses to crystal use among gay men, but the most visible are coming from private citizens not government agencies or community groups.
Either Verizon or an anonymous benefactor has since paid to print and place Staley’s anti-crystal ads on additional phone booths. A number of gay publications, including Gay City News, have run the ad for free.
Carlson, Kellerhouse, and Staley are forming a crystal meth working group that will create public awareness and outreach campaigns. They expect to add additional members to the group.
“It’s specifically to build on Peter’s ads and the forums,” Carlson said. “Our first job will be to create a follow up to Peter’s ads.”
Kellerhouse is organizing a one-day conference on crystal meth prevention and treatment for health service providers. That conference is tentatively scheduled for late March.
Community groups are taking notice of the increased attention to crystal use among gay men.
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center placed anti-crystal ads on five phone booths in Chelsea on February 10 that promote the Center’s counseling services. The ad will appear on another five booths elsewhere in the city.
“This is an issue that the Center has been working on for a while and we feel it was important to raise community awareness,” said Inga Sarda-Sorensen, the Center’s spokesperson. “We want people to know what resources are available to them.”
GMHC is organizing a task force on crystal and HIV prevention. The task force members are being recruited by William Floyd, the co-chair of GMHC’s board of directors, and Ana Oliveira, the agency’s executive director.
Staley, Oliveira and Dr. Mathilde Krim, board chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, met with senior city health department officials on February 2 to talk about crystal.
The health department is clearly feeling pressure. Frank J. Oldham, the citywide coordinator for AIDS policy, asked for five minutes to address the audience at the February 8 forum. When that request was denied, he read a statement from Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner, saying the city recognized that crystal was a “growing and serious” problem.
In a February 6 letter to Staley, Frieden wrote that the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health would “assume the lead for coordinating an ongoing response to this issue within [the health department] and collaborating with community partners.”
Frieden wrote that the office’s new director would start work in mid-February, but as of February 18 the department had not announced the name of the director.
The City Council health and mental health committees will hold joint hearings on crystal meth on April 22 at 1 p.m.
At the February 8 town hall meeting, Margarita Lopez, the City Councilmember from the Lower East Side and chair of the mental health committee, was critical of the health department and the Bloomberg administration.
“Nobody in the department or this administration has talked to me about this drug,” she said. “I have never seen a single brochure or a single proposal. All the information I have on this drug I have from the gay community.”
In response, the health department reiterated its commitment to tackling the problem, and voiced enthusiasm for working with Lopez.