News feature By Ryan Gierach, West Hollywood, California
His mentor Morris Kight would say it often, “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” a phrase he used to call attention to his growing infirmities and to defang a once-hurtful pejorative all at once.
Michael Weinstein, founder of AIDS HealthCare Foundation (AHF) beginning many years ago on Santa Monica holding a coffee can asking for donations so he could fund hospice care and get dying gay men off the street
and into a bed for their final days, has operated by the same motto, you could say…
To him, saving lives ain’t for sissies, and he’ll eagerly go into battle to call attention to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and education where people would rather discuss something else or take half-measures.
Looking back over the past 14 years of my life as a writer covering West Hollywood, the Los Angeles gay and especially the public health-HIV/AIDS beat (the CDC hired me to write nationally distributed stories about their annual HIV/AIDS conferences), I actually cannot count how many times I have seen him shake the status quo to the core.
Within the past 30 days, for example, he has almost blown up some chat rooms that discuss gay men’s’ sex and sexual health or patronize the leather/barebacking community by calling Truvada a “party drug.”
In response, a Mr. Leather created a petition to have him removed from his office.
He cried foul when Los Angeles County Department of Public Health failed to be forthcoming in a press release about meningitis – withholding the fact that three men had died, all gay and two with HIV.
That led to his publicly charging that institutional homophobia ruled in that department.
Mr. Weinstein’s AIDS Healthcare Foundation qualified a measure for the June 2014 ballot that would force the city to end its health services contracts with Los Angeles County and set up its own municipal health department within 120 days.
At the last moment, though, AHF placed a new proposed initiative with the city clerk’s office, this one requiring the city to form a citizens’ commission to oversee health services that the city receives from the county. The city would also be required to study the feasibility of setting up its own agency.
Why does Michael Weinstein think he can effect such change on one of the largest cities and the largest Public Health Department in the country?
After AHF managed to qualify a measure for the ballot requiring adult film actors to wear condoms on the set last year, the council voted to adopt it outright rather than spend $4 million on an election. Mr. Weinstein hopes for the same result here.
Many people recall the divisive West Hollywood initiative campaign in 2001 over requiring gay bars to place bowls of condoms in a prominent position in their clubs. In the end an agreement between city and club owners and HIV activists/health care providers put condoms into bars on a voluntary basis.
That ended up with posters put up calling him a “Condom Nazi,” who “joins the ranks of Jesse Helms, Jerry Falwell and Dr. Laura as an enemy of the gay community,” on the restroom walls of several gay bars along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
He responded forcefully, saying, “I am attacked in this flier as an enemy of the gay community. I am an enemy of HIV. As someone who has lived through a plague at full throttle I cannot remain silent. I would invite the anonymous author of this flier to step forward and debate the issue not in the restroom of a bar, but in the light of day.”
You might also recall his move to push aside the AIDS Walk with a competing event in 2010. APLA Executive Director Craig Thompson complained at the time, “their branding and their marketing is very similar to ours and causing a lot of consumer confusion… we’re concerned about their trading on our brand that we’ve developed and nurtured and protected and used for 25 years.”
Mr. Weinstein said that competition is healthy in all areas, including AIDS fundraising. As for the name, California AIDS Walk, he told WeHo News “there are hundreds of AIDS Walks out there… just as there are hundreds of breast cancer walks, and diabetes walks… all benefiting different agencies. That’s a generic term and doesn’t belong to any one organization.”
The LA Times relates how Dázon Dixon Diallo, chief executive of SisterLove Inc. in Atlanta, was incensed when AHF sent out a press release opposing Truvada treatment for women saying it would encourage unsafe sexual activity without consulting women’s organizations focused on that exact issue.
“They are bullies,” she told the Times. “And they have plenty of money to bully others with.”
Bringing things to this year, the gay community really sat up in their chairs when Mr. Weinstein made a flip and inexact quip to an Associate Press reporter during an interview about Truvada, which, while being hailed as a wonder drug for HIV prevention, has seen little acceptance among young gay men.
“If something comes along that’s better than condoms, I’m all for it, but Truvada is not that,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “Let’s be honest: It’s a party drug.”
By saying that, he opened a debate about the potential for young gay men to engage in reckless sexual activity, tempting some condom users to abandon that layer of protection. To Mr. Weinstein, that is anathema, as this exposes them to an array of other sexually transmitted infections aside from HIV.
Dr. Daniel O’Neill writes on Huffington Post that the reaction to Mr. Weinstein’s ‘party drug’ comment, is an example of people “offering a different, cautionary perspective being unfairly branded as sex-negative or ignorant of the realities of sex among gay men today.”
Eric Leue, Mr. LA Leather 2014, reacted negatively, saying, “instead of seeking dialogue, Weinstein goes further, saying, “[I]n terms of the people who have been yelling the loudest about this, they’ve all been associated with bareback porn.”
The petition reads in part, “This petition is not about how Weinstein or we personally feel about HIV PrEP. This petition is about whether we, the people, should be allowed access to accurate information, free of stigma and discrimination. Since 1980, HIV and its prevention has been framed in moral terms, and the people carrying the virus blamed. The head of our largest AIDS service organization should know that HIV prevention is not ‘a party.’”
One man’s stigma, though, is another’s cautionary warning. Mr. Weinstein asks, “Does he have more accurate information on Truvada? Is he and his fellow protester Mark Lucas, who runs an illegal barebacking production company in Los Angeles interested in the sexual health of the community or having things their way?”
He failed to see how attacking his person or character advanced the discussion, and dismissed the move. “I don’t know what they hope to gain from this petition,” he said, apparently shaking his head although that could not be seen over the phone. “How do they expect to unseat me from this non-profit I founded?”
Rather than calling names, he brought out some facts. “People using Truvada alone are more likely to get syphilis,” he said, “or the new drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea, if they abandon condoms.”
Another aspect that frightens him about the wonder drug is that some youths get the drug from their doctors and, rather than take a daily dose, then share it around with friends for party weekends, all the while under the impression that they have taken a prophylaxis.
According to Gilead, 1,774 people starting using Truvada for prevention between January 2011 and March 2013 — almost half of them women. “‘Why on earth are [gay men] hesitating?’” asks Mr. Weinstein, as well as wondering, “Why are young gay men not taking the wonder drug?”
It may have more to do with having to take a daily pill for maximum effectiveness to prevent a disease that can cost as much as $1,000 a month, although some insurance plans cover much of that. Or following the monthly schedule of visits with a health professional for counselling.
To troubling is how the discussion to date has both overstated what we know about the effectiveness of PrEP and repeatedly mischaracterized it as a simple once-a-day blue pill, when in reality it involves so much more.
PrEP was studied as a complete “prevention package” that entailed rigorous monthly risk-reduction counseling, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, provision of condoms, and regular safety lab work. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommendations detailed this “prevention package” in its interim guidance issued for PrEP use in 2012. However, if you look at the recent debate, you will find repeated suggestion that PrEP be used in lieu of condoms, since gay men are just going to have bareback sex anyway.
But Mr. Weinstein tends to attract strong reaction, just as a metal pole does lightening. The tussles he has had with County Zev Yaroslavsky are legendary, not only for their breadth but for the fierceness of the battles.
On the ballot measures, the LA Times reported that Mr. Yaroslavsky characterized the new measure as an “ego play by Michael Weinstein, this time to save face. I think he recognizes, if he’s paying any attention, that his first initiative is a disaster,” the supervisor said. “The city is not in the public health business, and it doesn’t want to be in the public health business.”
For his part, Mr. Weinstein thinks little of the termed-out supervisor and does not mind saying so. “Zev’s just a county board supervisor – I deal regularly with heads of state.”
Not everyone, though, reacts negatively to Mr. Weinstein’s brashness and forcefulness.
Al Sharpton, known to ruffle a feather or two himself, recently honored Mr. Weinstein through his non-profit, the National Action Network (NAN), with one its ‘Keepers of the Dream’ Awards at a gala ceremony in mid-April in New York City.
Honored for his HIV/AIDS work; for launching the ‘AIDS is a Civil Right Issue’ awareness and advocacy campaign which addresses the fact that African Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS; and for spearheading ‘Keep the Promise on AIDS’ marches and rallies in Washington, New York, Atlanta and Cleveland.
“I am humbled to be considered a ‘Keeper of the Dream’ and honored by this recognition by the National Action Network and the community,” said Michael Weinstein. “Sadly, AIDS today has a disproportionate—and devastating—impact on both the African American and Latino communities.
“AIDS Healthcare Foundation, working together with partners like Reverend Sharpton as well as churches, non-profits and community groups around the nation are striving to open a frank dialogue within the community to address these health disparities through forums including our ‘AIDS Is A Civil Right Issue’ events.
The campaign and these town hall discussions also emphasize the fact that access to HIV prevention, care and treatment for HIV/AIDS should be universal. While deeply honored by this award, we still have much work to do in this fight. We must also remember and commend the work of those like Dr. King, who came before us and helped pave the way for such awareness campaigns to be possible.”
He said the next day, recalling his beginnings in hospice care and the early days of prevention and treatment, “We’ve always reached out to the dispossessed, the black and Latino communities. It’s something we always got a lot of push back about from the gay establishment, but the need in those communities is far greater than in an otherwise privileged world.”
No, no sissy is Michael Weinstein, not by a long shot.