Scroll To Top

Too sexy for
saving lives?

Too sexy for
saving lives?


Right-wing politicians are targeting sexually frank HIV prevention programs and materials. But AIDS advocates aren't backing down from what they say is an effective approach.

Late one evening in April, Minnesota Republican Tom Emmer quietly crept to the front line of the conservative war on gay sexuality. As his fellow St. Paul legislators hammered out an otherwise unremarkable state budget, Emmer, a freshman representative from the Minneapolis suburb of Delano, introduced an 11th-hour amendment prohibiting the state's health department from providing any public money to HIV prevention programs that use "sexually explicit images or language."

Emmer was targeting the Minnesota AIDS Project, a Minneapolis-based AIDS service organization with a Web site that contains sexually explicit HIV prevention messages. "Are we talking about the sex act, how to do it? Or are we talking about the health concerns associated with the act?" Emmer asked at the time, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Though Emmer's attachment is thought to have little chance of passage in its original wording, it illustrates the recent dilemma facing AIDS service organizations nationwide: how to create powerful and effective HIV prevention materials that will reach at-risk individuals without jeopardizing public funding controlled by conservatives who are more concerned with "decency" than effective outreach. "The sad reality is that it's [the lawmakers'] behavior that contributes to creating a climate of high risk, particularly for gay and bisexual men," argues Bob Tracy, director of development for Minnesota AIDS Project.

Tracy points out that the Minnesota AIDS Project Web site is part of a privately funded educational program separate from its publicly funded services arm. That wasn't the case with San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project, which lost its funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year over sexually explicit materials. Now the group is having to find private dollars to continue to run the controversial workshops and advertisements it deems necessary to reach at-risk gay and bisexual men.

The episode had a chilling effect on national HIV prevention groups. "Clearly there's a general skittishness that's pretty pervasive on the prevention scene these days," says George Ayala, director of the Institute for Gay Men's Health, a collaborative offshoot of AIDS Project Los Angeles and New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis. "There's a lot of fear about potential government retribution. For smaller organizations that's an especially big deal, because they're dependent on government money just to survive."

But MAP and Stop AIDS haven't backed down. They continue to use HIV prevention materials some might find objectionable, including instructions on specific sex acts. "We were supposed to be the boogeyman," says Jason Riggs, director of communications for the Stop AIDS Project. "We were supposed to be the domino that fell so that conservative congress members and the White House could attack HIV prevention across the board. But we didn't fall."

Riggs vigorously defends his prevention program's sexy nature. "Our goal is to get guys in the community to be informed about HIV and make personal commitments to staying safe, which is hard to do if our programs don't sound interesting," he says. "In a community that's saturated with sexual advertisement, we think our work is actually pretty tame."

Tracy sees the conservative backlash against HIV prevention programs as part of a larger antigay movement in the United States. "We are in a political environment where, at least for some people, whatever approach they can take to attack LGBT communities they will pursue, be it fanning the flames around gay marriage or attacking HIV prevention programs because we put out information that's relevant to gay and bi men," he says. "We're in a climate where that's acceptable, and there are apparently rewards for doing that."

That may be true. But Riggs says he's not in the business of making conservative congressman happy--an allusion to U.S. representative Mark Souder of Indiana, a major figure in the charge to cut off Stop AIDS's CDC funds. "Ultimately, our goal is to be effective," he says. "If you want to talk about obscene, obscene is a congressman in Indiana deciding what safe sex should look like to gay men in San Francisco," he says.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Dan Allen