"More things of this nature will happen," Davis writes ominously, "because the county and one reporter from one weekly are afraid to actually look at HIV prevention in a way that... addresses reality."
Davis has it backwards: Two weeks after Murder in the Dark was rightly canceled, even more damning facts about the event continue to emerge, and it's Gay City that refuses to address this reality: With events like Murder in the Dark, Gay City is most likely making Seattle's HIV and STD problem worse.
According to a Gay City flier, this year's Murder in the Dark was meant to draw young gay "sex club virgins" into the gay sex club Basic Plumbing. Bathhouses and sex clubs are hubs of STD transmission, the last places a publicly funded health agency should be encouraging young gay "sex club virgins" to go. Yet instead of admitting it made a mistake, Gay City has been defending Murder as a successful, nonsexual intervention targeting an "at-risk" population, and painting The Stranger and the health department as "right wing" prudes. (Gay City has it backwards here, too: The Stranger is pro gay sex [duh!], but we're also pro gay health, which is why we've been so hard on Gay City's harmful, backward programming.)
In the Seattle Gay News, Gay City Executive Director Fred Swanson defended Murder, saying I had misinterpreted the phrase "sex club virgins" in my last article ["Basic Values vs. Basic Plumbing," Oct 9] and that I wrongly implied the event "was a bathhouse promotion or recruitment activity of some sort." He said Murder in the Dark begins with a 30- to 45-minute safe-sex talk followed by a game of tag, features no sexual demonstrations, and is simply a fun event for members of Queercore (a group Gay City runs for guys ages 18-29). Past Murder events, Swanson claimed, have been highly successful health interventions.
But according to those who were there, past Murder events were the exact opposite of what Swanson claims. Here's what happened at last year's event, according to two young gay men who participated: Gay City gave all the young guys at Murder a free two-month pass to Basic Plumbing (sounds like promotion and recruitment); played porn featuring unsafe sex (sounds like an unsafe sex demonstration); gave a quick 10-minute safe-sex lecture that a Gay City staffer apologized for, saying it was required for "granting purposes" (doesn't sound like a long, in-depth discussion); and encouraged participants to be sexual--one participant saw other participants blowing each other (doesn't sound like a "nonsexual" event). On top of that, most of the guys who attended, when asked by a Gay City questionnaire where they usually hang out, did not mark "bathhouses and sex clubs"--making Swanson's claim that Murder was an intervention involving an "at risk" population pretty flimsy.
"It kind of was like a how-to guide to bathhouses and sex clubs," says John Bennett, a 24-year-old gay man who attended last year's Murder. Robert Turner, 22, says that had it not been for the event, "I would have never set foot in that place."
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While Gay City was defending Murder, King County Executive Ron Sims and Alonzo Plough, director of Public Health-Seattle & King County, prepared to sign a manifesto (www.homohealth.org) that calls on gay men to behave more responsibly. At an early-morning press conference last week, gay leaders join Sims, but notably absent is Fred Swanson, executive director of King County's largest gay men's health organization. As Sims and others praise the manifesto, the contrast between their tone (directive, concerned, caring) and Gay City's tone (nondirective, nonjudgmental, flippant) is remarkable. One after another, gay and straight leaders unambiguously push the gay community to establish basic norms for healthy sexual behavior: If you have HIV, don't spread it; use condoms for anal sex outside of a committed relationship; know your HIV and STD status and disclose it to your partners.
Then Beau Burriola, a young HIV-positive gay man and a columnist for the SGN, stands up and unfurls a poster with Sims' picture on it. "STOP PREACHING" is written across Sims' forehead. Burriola's complaint is misguided and confused. Essentially, he is worried that the manifesto's calls for personal responsibility let Seattle's gay health agencies off the hook. But the manifesto does include a set of expectations for gay health agencies, which makes one wonder if Burriola even bothered to read the document he came to protest.
Burriola's protest is not only ill-informed, it also backfires. Asked by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer why he hasn't signed the manifesto, Swanson uses Burriola's argument as a dodge: "I'm reluctant to endorse a document which may lead people to believe I'm absolving myself or my organization of responsibility," Swanson says.
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It's ironic that Fred Swanson--the man who has consistently resisted the idea that his gay health agency should set some basic boundaries for responsible sexual behavior in the face of rising HIV and STD rates--is now presenting himself as a proponent of responsibility.
Just before press time, Swanson sent The Stranger a bunch of last-minute answers to our questions, denying any responsibility for the failure of Murder. Swanson said his staffer had "refuted" the claims that the safe-sex talk was short and shoddy, though Swanson admitted he wasn't at the event. Swanson said he wouldn't have wanted porn played at this year's Murder. He said Gay City had no idea free sex-club passes were being handed out at last year's event. ("Bullshit," replies Turner, who was there. "They definitely knew." Turner says a Gay City staffer met him at the door, signed him in, and watched as a Basic Plumbing employee handed out the free passes.) Swanson said he wouldn't want the passes handed out again, but he wouldn't say why. For his part, when Gay City's Brian Davis was asked about the passes during an online chat, he replied, "So what?"
What does this all add up to? A major failure of institutional leadership and oversight: Swanson doesn't know what happened at Murder in the Dark. He wasn't there. He has to take Davis' word for what happened, and won't--or can't--explain the contradictions between Davis' version of events and the version described by participants we interviewed. Worse than that, Swanson won't say what he believes: Why would it be wrong to hand out free passes? Does that mean Gay City doesn't think young gay men should be encouraged to go to sex clubs? Though it's his job to do so, Swanson won't touch the topic.
But, as he told the P-I, Swanson wants to be held responsible for his actions. Let's take this desire to its logical conclusion:
Imagine a nonprofit agency that uses public money to fight drunken driving. Imagine that this agency held an event that drew nondrinkers into a bar, gave them free drink tickets, showed them videos glorifying drunken driving, gave a brief talk about not drinking and driving "for granting purposes," and called the event "Murder on the Road." Imagine that participants in this event came forward to criticize it and that the agency's funders asked that this event not be held again. Imagine that the director of this agency claimed ignorance of what went on, but defended the event and said he hoped to hold another one--and that the staffer who ran this event said "so what" when asked about the drink tickets. Now imagine that the group's funders were currently considering how much funding to provide this agency for the next two years (as King County public health is currently doing with Gay City).
The public would be outraged, and rightly so. The funders would be slashing this morally bankrupt agency's budget, or defunding the agency altogether. In response, this agency's board of directors would move to restore credibility by firing the director and the staffer, or forcing both to resign. That's what taking responsibility looks like. It remains to be seen whether Gay City is ready to practice the kind of responsibility Fred Swanson is so suddenly preaching.