Activists reflect on the results of a yearlong effort to raise awareness
Nearly one year since they produced the first in a series of town meetings on gay men, HIV and drugs, Dan Carlson and Bruce Kellerhouse sat down with Gay City News to talk about their work, its impact and what their future efforts may be.
The two men believe that their work has raised awareness about crystal meth and HIV in New York City and across the nation. They can point to concrete results—more city funds for anti-crystal ads—that are due, in part, to the spotlight they put on meth.
But they also expressed frustration. They were moved to act last year by a community that they saw as not responding to the dangers of drug use and HIV infections among gay men. They faulted community and AIDS groups in particular.
Carlson and Kellerhouse have seen advances on that front, but not enough.
“We definitely have a place and a voice in the discussion, the HIV discussion, which we didn’t have a year ago,” Kellerhouse said. “In a larger sense, public awareness has been focused on gay men’s health, more broadly on gay men’s lives, more specifically on drugs and HIV prevention.”
Collectively, the four town meetings they organized, the first one on November 16 last year, have drawn thousands of people.
Carlson said they met their initial objective.
“We’ve certainly raised awareness,” he said. “We’ve certainly gotten people talking about crystal meth and HIV.”
Those conversations happen at the town meetings and after them. Health departments and groups across the country have used the anti-meth ads produced by the HIV Forum, the group created by Carlson and Kellerhouse, and there have been community forums in other cities.
“Those dialogues exist inside the forums and they exist outside the forums,” Kellerhouse said. “We’ve affected a broader audience that we don’t even know about.”
The dialogue will continue at the “Youth Forum” on October 16 at New York University’s Kimmel Center from 3 to 5 p.m. featuring three panelists under the age of 28. John Cameron Mitchell, writer, director and star of the film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” will moderate.
“We’re hoping that John will walk around the crowd,” Carlson said. “We hope it will be much more interactive.”
On November 7, at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, Larry Kramer, the writer and a founder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, will give a speech at 7 p.m.
“He really wants to talk about where he sees the community going,” Carlson said.
Coming five days after the presidential election, and depending on the election results, that speech could be powerful if Kramer returns to form. It was a 1987 Kramer speech at the gay community center that launched ACT UP.
“That was part of the timing,” Carlson said. “We decided that after the election would be better.”
The city’s health department has spent $300,000 to fund anti-crystal ads that are produced by the HIV Forum, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC).
The city responded to the HIV Forum’s efforts, but also to anti-meth ads placed in Chelsea by Peter Staley, a longtime AIDS activist, and pressure from the City Council, most notably Councilmember Margarita Lopez, a Democrat who represents parts of Lower Manhattan.
On top of the anti-crystal ads, the lgbt Community Center has beefed up its drug counseling efforts. GMHC formed a crystal task force that called on the city and state to spend $3.5 million annually to fund anti-crystal efforts and challenged the community to halt the use of meth.
“I think we’ve gotten government and service providers to respond albeit to varying degrees,” Kellerhouse said.
While they did not name any one organization, Kellerhouse and Carlson said that community and AIDS groups had not done enough. Some have produced “small, but nonetheless significant initiatives towards addressing gay men’s health,” according to Kellerhouse, but those initiatives do not match the scope of the problem.
“I’m puzzled,” Carlson said. “You can’t help but look at the situation and see that something needs to be done and it needs to be aggressive.”
Kellerhouse agreed. “I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” he said. “What it says to me is that the status quo is deeply entrenched and it’s going to take more time and more effort to shake it up… We have to help these groups break out of their institutional inertia.”
At the first forum, actor Harvey Fierstein, the moderator, asked, “Do we want to form a new grassroots movement to put health back into our community?”
Kellerhouse said that they have considered that option.
“It may be the answer to that question,” he said. “There have been times when we thought there needs to be an organization specifically focused on HIV prevention for gay men and there are none in New York City.”