The gay community‘s love-hate relationship with gay bars predates the Stonewall Rebellion, when Mafia bar owners cared as little about their customers as the police who raided them did. The historical tension has centered around whether bars are safe, celebratory places for men to gather in a homophobic society or exploiters pushing alcoholism, capitalism and HIV infection.
In West Hollywood, voters on March 6 will resolve a spinoff of that debate. If Proposition A passes, the city will distribute 500,000 condoms and safer-sex information to bars and any businesses that derive more than half of their revenue from on-site alcohol sales. The city now has a voluntary program; Prop. A would require bars to display safer-sex information visibly and provide condoms on demand. The city would spend $75,000 on the plan and is expected to replenish the safer-sex information once it runs out.
The idea for Prop. A began more than two years ago, when Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, took a walk around Boys’ Town and found that condom bowls were either empty or inaccessible, and that safer-sex messages were missing. In January 1999, Weinstein asked the West Hollywood City Council to order bars to make safer-sex information available. Bar owners, gay organizations and politicians opposed the idea, and Weinstein and other activists said this showed that elected officials are beholden to the revenue generated by bar commerce. It also showed a gay community in utter denial about the dangers of HIV infection when people have been drinking.
After several compromise solutions, including a voluntary-distribution plan, Weinstein decided to try the ballot measure. Along the way, he‘s provoked some of the most vicious infighting in the gay community in years. Posters of Weinstein as a ”Condom Nazi“ were plastered all over West Hollywood.
Weinstein’s controversial measure has received more vocal support from the straight community than the gay. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky and Assemblyman Paul Koretz recently endorsed it. Supporters cite reports about rising rates of HIV infection among young African-American gay and bisexual men in six major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. According to Centers for Disease Control researchers, one-third of young gay black men between the ages of 23 and 29 in those cities are HIV-positive.
Most leaders in the gay community have fought against government involvement in the delicate psychological business of HIV prevention, but not always for the right reasons. West Hollywood City Council Member Steve Martin has been a vocal foe of Weinstein and his ”messiah complex,“ as have most other gay and AIDS organizations, which oppose the measure‘s one-note emphasis on condom availability. Martin says condom education has failed and he favors a more sophisticated psychological approach that recognizes the role sex plays in restoring a sense of well-being to gays oppressed by internalized homophobia.
Some Prop. A supporters say that Martin’s gay-liberation vision and Weinstein‘s condom plan are not incompatible and wonder why gay activists are so protective of the bar owners. Bar owners, such as Micky’s Michael Niemeyer, have accused Weinstein of ”scapegoating“ bars for a larger societal problem and for not realizing that bars often run out of condoms on the weekends. He accuses Weinstein of drawing on the right wing‘s objections to gay sex. ”Bars have traditionally organized gays and have also been targeted by homophobes,“ Niemeyer said. ”Every time you devise lists and mandate laws based on sexual orientation, you are on a bad footing, especially in an unfriendly administration.“ (He worries that precious prevention funds will be focused on nongays.)
Jon Duran, a civil rights lawyer and candidate for the West Hollywood City Council, says if ”this mandatory program had come out of the Bush administration, West Hollywood would be unified in its opposition.
“On the other hand bars have been lazy about voluntary compliance according to a survey commissioned by Weinstein. Activist Wendell Jones argues that ”the principal reason the bars don’t want to display condoms is related to a fear that public reminders of AIDS will be bad for business.“
Initiative supporters, such as founding ACT UP member Peter Cashman and Lambda Legal Defense attorney Jon Davidson, say that if Prop. A saves one life, it‘s worth it. And Aaron Aronow, associate professor of neurology and internal medicine at the USC School of Medicine, says the problem with the city’s voluntary program is that it is disproportionately and ineffectively applied only to gay businesses, while Prop. A targets straight people and high-risk women too.