HERE ARE A FEW things I learned about Eric Hildebrandt while reading a recent copy of The Seattle Times: Hildebrandt, a gay man living on Capitol Hill, doesn't always use condoms when he has anal sex. If he meets a guy in a bathhouse or at a gay bar who looks healthy enough or is younger than he is -- and therefore, Hildebrandt reasons, less likely to be infected with HIV -- this 28-year-old Libra cheerfully engages in anal intercourse without using a condom.
Under the headline "Unsafe Sex Reported on the Rise Among Gays," The Seattle Times' medical reporter Warren King writes that Hildebrandt doesn't feel AIDS is the threat it once was, so Hildebrandt allows himself to take calculated risks with unprotected sex. To those who condemn his choices, Hildebrandt points to women at high risk of passing genetic birth defects on to their children. "No one comes down on them as immoral or murderers [if they decide to get pregnant]," Hildebrandt says. "But when gay men take the risk to have unprotected sex, it becomes a huge thing."
Three years ago, in The Stranger, I wrote a story in which I admitted that I wasn't using condoms with my boyfriend anymore. We were both HIV-negative, and if we had anal sex with others we would use condoms, I wrote, because contracting HIV was still very serious, drugs or no drugs. My story became a "huge thing." John Leonard, the executive director of Gay City, a local AIDS prevention organization, wrote an outraged letter to The Stranger. Calling my piece "dangerous and wrong," Leonard warned that if gay men "followed my lead" and threw their condoms away, "we could see a huge new wave of the epidemic." That same year, Leonard wrote in Gay City's annual report that for gay men, "success is measured by the small steps we take each day to come out, to love ourselves, to take care of each other, and, yes, to use condoms."
Imagine my shock then, when I learned what Eric Hildebrandt does for a living: "Hildebrandt is not naive about the risk of AIDS," King wrote. "He works for Gay City Health Project, a private organization dedicated, in part, to curbing the spread of HIV by building a spirit of community and responsibility among gay men." John Leonard was quoted in King's story, too, but he didn't condemn his risk-taking employee or warn other gay men not to follow Hildebrandt's lead. "We encourage people to have frank conversations with their sexual partners... and make an informed choice," Leonard told the Times. "It steers away from preaching. It allows for a time when it's actually OK to not use a condom."
Three years ago it was not okay with Leonard for me to have unprotected anal sex with my HIV-negative boyfriend who was only having unprotected anal sex with HIV-negative me. Today it's okay for Leonard's employees to have unprotected anal sex with men -- younger men -- they meet in bathhouses. Apparently things have changed at Gay City. Leonard has jettisoned his crisis-era hysteria (use a condom every time or you're an unsuccessful gay man!), and has assumed a new, more nuanced position (there are times when gay men don't need condoms). In fact, Leonard's new position seems indistinguishable from the one I took three years ago: the position Leonard called "dangerous and wrong."
BAIT AND SWITCH
Gay City was founded five years ago, according to the group's website, "by a group of activists and educators alarmed by a rising tide of new HIV infections." I was one of the activists who helped found Gay City. Five years ago, AIDS was still a terminal illness -- not the chronic illness it is today. Yet greater numbers of gay men were engaging in unprotected anal sex. Yet despite the fact that upward of 90 percent of the AIDS cases in King County were among gay men, less than 20 percent of local HIV prevention dollars were targeted at gay men. With practically no money, Gay City hosted a successful community forum ("Why Are Fags Still Fucking Without Condoms?"). The educators involved with Gay City, then called the Men Having Sex with Men Task Force, wanted to ask gay men why so many of us were taking irrational risks. We told the men who came that we wanted to "start a conversation" about the issue, not lecture them; the forum was such a success that we held another. And another. And another.
Gay City's first forums were a crisis-era response to a life-and-death issue: the growing HIV infection rates. But three of us -- primarily John Leonard, Dominic Capello, and myself -- had a more ambitious agenda. We believed Seattle needed a gay men's social service organization, a male version of the Lesbian Resource Center (LRC). Over lunch at Cafe Septieme on Broadway and later at Leonard's apartment, we discussed using these issues -- rising HIV infections and too little HIV prevention money going to gay men -- to secure AIDS dollars out of the county, state, and federal government, money that could then be spent on LRC-ish services for gay men. We jokingly called our plan "The Revolution." Refusing to use condoms in 1995 was an act of supreme self-destruction, someone theorized, so Gay City went to local AIDS bigwigs and funders and argued that only by building gay men's self-esteem could we convince them to use condoms. If gay men saw their lives as worth living, then they wouldn't risk their lives for sex. (This was well before Gabrielle Rotello pointed out in his book, Sexual Ecology, that studies show the higher a gay man's self-esteem and the more connected he feels to the gay community, the likelier he is to take sexual risks.)
That was the plan we hatched in Leonard's apartment -- using AIDS dollars to boost gay men's self-esteem (and what couldn't be considered a self-esteem booster?) would allow an agency to do general programming for gay men -- and it's pretty much what's come to pass: With money from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Washington State Department of Health, and the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, "Gay City Health Project" has grown to become an enormous social services agency for gay and bisexual men. Most of Gay City's programs and events have little if anything to do with HIV prevention. Indeed, Gay City's most recent forum was an evening with the head of the Human Rights Campaign ("Who's Afraid of Elizabeth Birch?"), an event co-sponsored by the Lesbian Resource Center. Birch, a political leader, spent most of her time talking about the HRC's opposition to including transgendered people in the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and very little time talking about HIV transmission or gay men's self-esteem.
After Gay City got its first grant, Leonard, Capello, and graphic artist Skyler Fine created a pamphlet, "Welcome to Gay City," introducing the new group to gay men in Seattle. "Our mission is to dramatically reduce the number of new HIV infections in Seattle-area gay and bi men by the year 2000. Gay City is committed to building community, promoting communication and nurturing a culture in which gay men see their lives as worth living." Gay City, according to the pamphlet, was sponsoring "fabulous community forums, notable speakers, intimate discussions and special events," as well as "addressing issues that are too seldom talked about, like how to reduce unsafe sex at the bathhouses." Gay City was about groundbreaking AIDS prevention work, the pamphlet made clear, prevention efforts that were going to be "bold, explicit, and relevant to the lives of gay men."
Five years later, with the year 2000 upon us, it's fair to ask if Gay City has accomplished its goal of dramatically reducing new HIV infections by boosting gay men's self-esteem. It hasn't. HIV infections among gay men in Seattle are generally acknowledged to be rising, though new AIDS cases have fallen dramatically. (Because the transmission rates of other STDs are increasing, the CDC estimates that HIV infections are climbing as well.) I'm not suggesting Gay City is responsible for the rise, only that Gay City hasn't reduced the rate of infection, dramatically or otherwise. This might be why reducing new infections isn't mentioned as one of Gay City's goals anywhere in the group's latest pamphlet, "Strong." Lip service is paid to promoting "gay and bisexual men's health and [preventing] HIV transmission by building community," but most of what Gay City boasts of doing is social. While this has value, it also has little if anything to do with HIV prevention: "Some of our programs include community forums, book discussion groups, HIV-negative support groups, and a project for gay men over 40." At Gay City University, gay men learn about estate planning, making stained glass windows, and how to do drag. Gay City also offers workshops and courses on self-esteem, ageism, and intimacy and "activities for guys in their 20s -- everything from films and forums to Coffee Talks and 'Boygames' in the park." The last invitation I got to a Gay City event was for a weekend getaway at Crystal Mountain, where it was promised participants would "cozy up" with one another around the fireplace with cups of hot cocoa and s'mores.
What Gay City does is valuable, and most of the men who attend Gay City events find them rewarding. But they're not reducing HIV infections, not according to the stats or the man (who wouldn't give me his name or speak on the record) who called me after Gay City's summer camp to complain about other campers having unprotected anal sex. Pointing out that Gay City isn't in the HIV-prevention biz isn't meant to diminish the value of what the organization is actually doing. Indeed, Gay City is providing the kinds of non-AIDS-specific social services I wanted to see an agency provide back when Leonard and I met to discuss these issues.
But Gay City's bait-and-switch funding premise -- and that's the phrase I used with John and Dominic to describe our funding pitch five years ago -- is a growing problem for gay men in Seattle and in other cities where AIDS agencies have created Gay City-style programs. By promising something it can't deliver (reduced HIV transmissions) through boosting gay men's self-esteem, Gay City invites the kind of scrutiny that Eric Hildebrandt objected to in The Seattle Times.
PUBLIC MONEY, PUBLIC SCRUTINY
With all due respect to Hildebrandt, his desire to go to a bathhouse and have his ass filled with a complete stranger's semen, even at the risk of contracting HIV, doesn't really compare to a woman's desire to have children, even at the risk of passing on a birth defect. But I share Eric's exasperation when he complains that "when gay men take the risk to have unprotected sex, it becomes a huge thing." When individual straight boys don't use condoms, it's not a big thing for the straight male community; when women have children they can't care for, it's not a big thing for the straight female community. Why is it that the private lives of gay men -- specifically the choices we make around sexual risk-taking -- are debated in public and at such earsplitting volumes?
At the onset of AIDS, gay men's private lives were suddenly an issue of pressing public health concern. Was the immune-system collapse that was killing so many gay men the result of some bug? Popper use? Was it a sexually transmitted disease? Could it be spread by casual contact? Even when we had answers to those questions -- it was a virus, sexually transmitted, and could not be spread by casual contact -- gay men's private remained public property. We needed to be informed of this new universe of risk, how this disease was transmitted, and how we could protect ourselves. Gay men made drastic changes -- using condoms, sleeping with fewer people, doing fewer drugs -- and the steps gay men took to protect themselves earned us tons of good press.
Nearly 20 years later, fully informed gay men are aware of the risks associated with sex, and gay men like Eric and me are tired of having the choices we make endlessly scrutinized. We're ready to be treated like adults, and adults are allowed to make informed choices. And in the mid- to late-'90s, gay men started doing just that: making their own choices, no longer willing to play by outdated AIDS-crisis-era rules laid down by paternalistic AIDS organizations and condescending health departments ("Use a Condom Every Time!"). Instead, individual gay men began charting their own courses, each of us making informed choices about the level of risk he was willing to assume.
While a gay man making an informed choice about his sex life should be entitled to the same autonomy as anyone else (has a 28-year-old straight guy who doesn't use condoms ever made the cover of The Seattle Times?), gay men won't secure that level of autonomy as long as public funds are used to support groups like Gay City.
It's like this, Eric: The public (newspaper reporters, public health officials, taxpayers) feel they have a right to "come down" on gay men and make "a huge thing" when we decide to "take the risk to have unprotected sex," because they're funding agencies like Gay City -- agencies that tell them their programs can prevent us from taking stupid sexual risks. And not only is the public asked to fund groups that try to talk us out of taking stupid sexual risks -- and unprotected anal sex with strangers in bathhouses, however young and healthy they appear to be, counts as stupid -- they're also asked to fund a level of services for people with HIV/AIDS that no other group expects or is entitled to, services that are perceived as primarily benefiting gay men.
Because we ask for all this money from the public, the public feels it has a right to come down on us when we don't keep up our end of the bargain. In other words, accepting public funds invites public scrutiny. Taxpayers are making an investment in gay men's choices through the dollars that groups like Gay City get from the CDC and state and county public health departments, and taxpayers feel they have a right to know how their investment is doing. And when you, Eric, or I, or other gay men don't make the choices Gay City promised the public we would if only they had enough public money to organize on ski trips and stuff us with s'mores, then the public is going to feel cheated, and the public is going to make a "huge deal" out of it. If the CDC can't count on Gay City's own employees (guys who work at self-esteem ground zero!) to consistently use condoms in bathhouses, who can they count on to use condoms?
Thanks to the public scrutiny we invite, gay men are experiencing a public relations problem, one almost entirely of our own creation. Newsweek, USA Today, The Seattle Times, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications have all weighed in with stories about "barebacking," the return to unprotected anal sex, and "the new gay promiscuity." Two stories went out over the wires recently about AOL chat rooms. One was about chat rooms serving as a sort of virtual bathhouse, with men hooking up with other men online, then meeting for real-time sex. (One AOL chatter told Salon that he could have "dick delivered to my door faster than a pizza.") The other was about an outbreak of syphilis traced to contacts made by gay men in AOL chat rooms. In the same Seattle Times story in which Eric Hildebrandt admitted he doesn't always use condoms in bathhouses, readers also learned that the King County Department of Health was planning to spend $75,000 to "survey gay men at the baths to learn how better to tailor AIDS prevention campaigns." How many more of these stories will taxpayers and politicians be able to read before they finally throw their hands up in disgust, and funding for AIDS services and HIV prevention implodes?
Gay men can't have it both ways. We can't demand the right to make choices about risk and unprotected sex with complete autonomy, and then turn around and demand that the rest of the world bail us out when we suffer predictable consequences. We can't expect privacy if we demand that the publicly funded organizations that try to talk us out of contracting HIV -- as well as organizations that pay our rent and health insurance premiums -- provide us with free meals and movie tickets, bagged groceries, and trips to the resale shop when we do get HIV. We can't tell the world we have a right to stick our asses in the air in bathhouses, and then expect the world to come to our AIDS Walk.
GAY CITY ON THE UP AND UP
It's time for Gay City to end the bait-and-switch. We live in a country where one in four children has no health insurance, and in a state where one in three children lives in poverty. At the same time that one out of four children in the United States can't see a doctor when they're sick, Gay City uses public health money to host book reading groups and organize kickball games in Volunteer Park for mostly well-off, white gay men. Absent the negative press that gay men's sex lives are currently attracting, this set up (kids with no health insurance, gay men with publicly subsidized social lives) may strike some of the public as -- oh, I don't know -- just a little immoral.
I'm not suggesting that Gay City shouldn't exist, or that public funds shouldn't be spent on AIDS education efforts targetting gay men. Gay City is a positive group doing good work, work that improves the lives of many gay men in Seattle; to make informed choices about risk, gay men need information about HIV/AIDS. But Gay City isn't a health project, and the group rarely talks to gay men about HIV/AIDS.
That Gay City doesn't spend much time talking to gay men about AIDS probably accounts for the group's popularity: Most gay men don't want to hear about HIV/AIDS these days. When Gary Locke cut state AIDS funding, there was little outcry from gay men. When the King County Department of Public Health Department began collecting the names of people with HIV, a few gay men formed an ACT-UP-style group, Resist the List!, but they didn't get much traction with the media or other gay men. Northwest AIDS Foundation and Chicken Soup Brigade recently announced that they're discussing a merger -- a move that would've provoked heated debate among gay men a few years ago -- barely made a ripple in 1999. Fewer and fewer gay men are turning out for NWAF's annual AIDS Walk, a regular attendee complained to me. Despite adding a beer garden, shortening the route, and guilting gay men with posters featuring a tattered-looking red ribbon and "Remember Me?" in large letters, the AIDS Walk brought in only $800,000 on the day-of-event this year, compared to $922,000 in 1998, and $1.2 million in 1997. Did any of the gay men out there reading this attend a World AIDS Day event on December 1? Did you know December 1 was World AIDS Day?
Of course, when anyone suggests it may be time to take money away from a specific AIDS organization in the United States, its executive director claims things are worse now than they've ever been -- just look at how awful things are over in Africa! While AIDS is indeed getting worse in Africa, it doesn't follow that AIDS organizations in the United States -- least of all groups whose primary missions are social -- should recieve public health funds indefinitely. And while it's true that more people in the United States are living with HIV than ever before, it's also true that they're living longer, healthier lives. Thanks to new drugs, people with HIV in the United States are less likely to be sick or disabled, less likely to progress to full-blown AIDS, less likely to need hospice care, less isolated, and less likely to need support groups.
Gay City can do all the work it's doing now without any public health money. There's a model for a legit Gay City right here in Seattle: The Lesbian Resource Center. Their offices aren't as swank, and their posters aren't as glossy, but LRC manages to run the same types of programs with no public health money. If gay men in Seattle value Gay City's forums, groups, and activities -- and I believe they do -- then gay men in Seattle should fund them. A portion of Gay City's budget already comes from fundraisers and individual contributions, and Gay City charges fees for some of its programs, so to some extent gay men already do just that. But Gay City needs to get off the public-health-care-dollar tit, and stop engaging in the ol' bait-and-switch. This new Gay City might be smaller and leaner, like the LRC, but it would also be something the current Gay City is not: Honest. And if groups like Gay City stopped taking public money, then Eric Hildebrandt and I could tell people who asked if we were using condoms that it's none of their damn business.