AHF Goes Further in Wrongheaded Battle Over Condoms in Porn

michael-weinstein

More than three decades into the epidemic, and our HIV outreach efforts are still chronically underfunded. So why do we allow one of the largest HIV organizations in the U.S. to devote millions each year on antisex and antiprevention campaigns that ignore science in favor of shame? It’s time we said enough.

Michael Weinstein, the head of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, based in Los Angeles, has made a name for himself with controversial, often conservative stances on HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. He’s perhaps most famous in the gay community for his continued attacks on PrEP, the revolutionary HIV-blocking prevention regimen using a pill called Truvada (the only drug approved for PrEP so far), which he decries as a “party drug.”

But you might also know about his seven-year campaign against adult performers. He’s labeled them a public health crisis, accused them of bringing STIs to the general public, and pushed forth a ballot initiative in 2012 that enforced condoms on L.A. County porn sets, which decimated the local industry and likely encouraged unsafe underground production. Never mind that there were already stringent screening requirements in place, while on-set transmission of HIV is very rare, at least in the PASS compliant (Performer Availability Scheduling Services) adult industry. But this year, Weinstein introduced a ballot initiative that would expand the condom enforcement statewide, severely fining production companies if they don’t comply and heralding the same effects that the L.A. initiative — though whittled down by courts following appeals from porn producers — has wrought. 

Much of the adult industry, performers and producers alike, see this as censorship, a moral crusade, while community advocates see it as reminiscent of proposed laws in the 1980s that criminalized people living with HIV. But at a time when resources for HIV are dwindling in many places, and newer prevention options prove to be the better choice for some, we should see it as far more nefarious.

Since 2009, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has spent millions on this condom-only effort. This money, which might have been used for treatment, advocacy, and prevention efforts, instead went to lawyers and lobbyists. 

AHF has claimed that such expenses are minor for an organization of its size, but for years these campaigns have represented an oversized focus of the world’s largest HIV and AIDS outreach organization, and have a ripple effect on doctors, advocates, and organizations that hope to work with them. The group's premise — that gay men are irresponsible, that sex workers are a public health threat, that STI testing is useless, and that condoms still represent the gold standard in HIV prevention — have come to dominate discussion.

Weinstein’s budget allows him to take out near limitless ads, hold press conferences, commission dubious studies, finance ballot initiatives, and file lawsuits. He can blanket a politician’s district with thousands of mailers and robocalls, as he did in 2013, directed at California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who had spoken out against him.

While the time and effort of his staff is harder to quantify, AHF’s total political expenditures for the past four years has exceeded $10 million — so much money that my organization, the Free Speech Coalition, asked the California attorney general and IRS to investigate whether Weinstein’s endless campaigning endangers AHF’s tax-exempt status.

Earlier this year, Weinstein announced he will use AHF funds to finance a ballot initiative in Los Angeles to prevent a residential development from rising near the group's offices in Hollywood, claiming that such urban density would increase traffic around AHF headquarters. His initiative is largely considered a threat to low-income rentals and transit-oriented housing throughout Los Angeles, a city with some of the most expensive rents in the nation. The ballot effort is so ambiguous and far off of AHF’s mission statement that even respected local activist Father Greg Boyle has withdrawn his initial support of it. We cannot allow the head of one of the largest HIV outreach organizations in the world to go rogue and use funding that belongs to the community to fund his personal crusades.

Weinstein’s antisex, anti-HIV-prevention obsession even led so far that he filed an Food and Drug Administration complaint against Gilead, the maker of Truvada, over an educational video that it didn’t even make. The video did discuss PrEP, and AHF is trying to draw a connection. Several health experts, activists, and advocates describe the complaint as inaccurate, “patently false,” and simply “part of the group’s crusade against promiscuous sex.”

Weinstein’s crusades are not only regressive and dangerous, they waste millions in desperately needed funds that could and should be used to help communities affected by HIV and those living with HIV.

Imagine the public discussion that could come if AHF’s resources, and that bully pulpit, changed its focus from porn stars and condo buildings to those still suffering disproportionately from the epidemic: transgender women, people of color, low-income men who have sex with men, and injection drug users. Unfortunately, so long as Michael Weinstein is in charge of AHF, and his board doesn’t pay attention, the foundation will continue to use up its resources on more camera-ready campaigns.

ERIC PAUL LEUE is the executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, serves on the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV, and was named Mr. L.A. Leather 2014. 

READER COMMENTS ()