By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
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By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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AS DISCONNECTED as Fieldingis from these gay health care experts, however, he should still only take so much heat for a problem clearly caused by gay and bisexual men who insist on having sex without condoms.
Jackson points to a deadly silence within the community. She believes this widespread silence causes outbreaks like syphilis. “People don’t want to talk about AIDS or syphilis. It brings up the past and bad memories. They’re in great denial.”
Craig Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, similarly blames “condom fatigue” — an attitude harbored by young men who weren’t around when AIDS was a virtual death sentence, as well as denial among men who even now aren’t comfortable with their homosexuality.
“The more homosexuality is hidden,” says Thompson, “the less likely you are going to negotiate safe sex.”
West Hollywood Mayor John Duran sees the use of crystal meth as a major culprit in the ballooning syphilis scourge. “It grabs people right from the very start, and people become addicted very quickly,” says Duran. “So they don’t have the ability to make the right choices.”
Duran also believes, “The message wears down after hearing this stuff for 20 years. We have to come up with something new.” Duran expects to start up a gay men’s health forum.
But for Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare, the issue is more clear cut: “There has been a decline of safer sex in the gay community, and there hasn’t been a call to arms about it.”
Weinstein is a rare voice in Los Angeles, consistently and loudly demanding personal responsibility when it comes to gay sex. Only a few years ago, posters featuring a photograph of Weinstein mysteriously appeared in the windows of West Hollywood bars on Santa Monica Boulevard, labeling Weinstein a “Condom Nazi.”
At the time, Weinstein was pushing a citywide public referendum for mandatory condom distribution at all West Hollywood bars and clubs. The voters in the 35,716-resident city, which is about 40 percent gay or bisexual, shot him down, and Weinstein was shocked that people turned against him.
“There are people in the gay community who say we shouldn’t hold people responsible,” Weinstein says, “and they are very militant about it.”
Regardless, the stubborn Weinstein has a plan to create a social climate where unsafe sex is not tolerated. Just as “friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” Weinstein wants gay men to accept the same notion about safe sex.
“Men — gay or straight — don’t want to use condoms,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.” Toward that end, AIDS Healthcare’s own marketing campaign emphasizes that testing and prevention should be a part of one’s grooming routine, like working out at the gym or brushing your teeth.
“It doesn’t help to judge,” says Weinstein, “but you can get the information out there and encourage people to get tested.”
In the meantime, bureaucrats at the county’s sprawling Department of Public Health will, in their own words, fight syphilis with “guerrilla marketing tactics” — and probably cross their fingers. Their new outreach program will run for two years. But if history repeats itself, they may need to start working on a replacement campaign today.?