HIV Forum founders reflect on their progress in combating crystal use, unsafe sex in gay community
Just over two years since they launched a series of eight town meetings on HIV, crystal, and gay men’s health that altogether drew thousands, Bruce Kellerhouse and Dan Carlson, the founders of the HIV Forum, can say that their efforts made a major contribution to gaining more government dollars to battle meth in New York City and changed the way some gay men view the drug.
But in separate interviews both men said that the goal they set in 2003 to enliven HIV prevention in the city had not been achieved and that AIDS groups had not responded.
“It is no longer as cool as it used to be,“ Carlson said of crystal meth. “It isn’t as prominent as it used to be. Tina has become her own worst enemy because gay men are seeing the consequences, the serious consequences, of use.”
That view of crystal was likely driven, in part, by the anti-meth posters that the Crystal Meth Working Group, a unit of the HIV Forum, put up in Chelsea and other parts of the city.
Other groups, such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC, Harlem United, and the Latino Commission on AIDS, also ran anti-meth poster campaigns.
“Obviously, there has been a larger response about the crystal meth issue by both the community, AIDS organizations, and the health department,” said Peter Staley, a Crystal Meth Working Group member. “We’re getting some credit for sparking a national response… The local response seems to have been sustained, if not grown.”
Staley, a longtime AIDS activist and former meth user, spent his own cash to put up the city’s first anti-meth posters in early 2004. The attention brought to crystal by these groups has resulted in the local and federal governments committing $2 million over roughly the past two years to anti-meth efforts, meth treatment programs, and studies on crystal use among gay men.
While activists believe their work has been effective, there is no data showing that meth use among New York City gay men has declined.
“The results of all this attention are unfortunately very hard to measure and I don’t think we’ll know for a couple more years,” Staley said. “I am definitely not going to claim an inch of victory against meth until there is hard data to do so.”
Dr. Perry N. Halkitis, a psychology professor at New York University and the director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior, & Prevention Studies, has authored a number of studies on drug use among New York City gay men. Meth user estimates in those studies ranged from six percent to 28 percent. Halkitis was guarded in his assessment of the HIV Forum’s efforts.
“The efforts of all agencies with regard to meth have to be recognized,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Whether or not anything has been achieved by forums they have organized is an area of speculation. What is clear is that there is at least a discussion on issues such as meth and HIV among some gay men. Yet this is only the beginning and until gay men can have more frank conversations about their needs, wants, desires, much behavior will be happening undercover, where I believe some meth behavior has actually gone due to the scare and screaming tactics of some groups.”
Carlson and Kellerhouse agreed that their work had not sparked renewed attention to HIV prevention generally among gay men. In a 2003 interview, the men said they were initially concerned about Carlson’s own unsafe sex, but then they started to ask what city government and AIDS groups were doing about gay men and HIV.
“It became more focused on what is the community doing for us, what is the city, what are the organizations, all of the structure that has done prevention, what are they doing for us?” Kellerhouse said two years ago.
Their first forum, held at the LGBT Community Center, drew several hundred people. Some later events, held at the Fashion Institute of Technology, NYU, and Cooper Union, also drew hundreds, indicating that the concerns that Carlson and Kellerhouse had were widely shared.
“I’m really just astounded by their success,” said Jay Laudato, executive director of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, a gay health clinic. “They did something that no organization, none of us with resources and large client bases, were able to do.”
Laudato was a panelist at one forum and Callen-Lorde is the fiscal sponsor of the HIV Forum.
The two men never wanted to provide HIV prevention services. They hoped that the forums would pressure existing groups to revitalize their programs or create new ones. They expressed frustration that that had not happened.
“I’ve dedicated two years of my life to this and at times I get angry,” Carlson said. “It angers me that there isn’t this urgency around HIV prevention… It angers me that it seems that prevention is an afterthought… Gay men need to know that these organizations are looking out for them.”
While Carlson and Kellerhouse have made general criticisms of the state of HIV prevention at some of their events, they pointedly avoided publicly naming any one group. In their recent interviews, that posture changed.
“GMHC, truthfully, they continue to do what they do best which is to suck up all the community resources,” Kellerhouse said. “They are lacking in visibility for HIV prevention for gay men and they are lacking in substance.”
Ana Oliveira, GMHC’s executive director, said that resources in the city were distributed “fairly if not equally… I understand that is his opinion, but I don’t believe that that is the case” and that both groups had worked together successfully.
“We have worked with the HIV Forum in a very collaborative and constructive way over the past two years,” she said.
Kellerhouse also criticized the city health department.
“I feel like the health department has been the most responsive if we look at the crystal meth issue,” he said. “I wish they had been equally responsive on HIV prevention.”
Carlson, who ran the HIV Forum until September when he took a fulltime job at an advertising agency, said they were evaluating the forum’s future.
“Is there a place for us in New York City and, if there is, what is that place?” he said. “Secondly, what is our strategic plan and vision going forward?”