For a guy who has spent most of his life fighting the spread of a deadly epidemic, Michael Weinstein, co-founder and president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has more enemies than most. Just to name a few:
- There’s the County of Los Angeles, which he’s sparred with over his fervent belief that porn actors should wear condoms. (He won, and because of his 2012 ballot measure, rubbers are now mandatory when filming porn in LA.)
- There are fellow AIDS activists, who accuse Weinstein of managing AHF’s nearly $1 billion budget to bully smaller, poorer organizations into doing what’s best for AHF, as opposed to what’s best for prevention and treatment.
- There are the three former employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit saying AHF’s policy on patient referrals amounts to illegal kickbacks (that one’s still ongoing).
- And there are the drug companies, whom Weinstein has accused of jacking up the prices of HIV meds. (He managed to win this one, too, forcing price reductions).
His latest high-profile battle has revolved around Truvada, the FDA-approved and CDC-recommended daily pill that prevents HIV with a 99-percent success rate. Many activists and health professionals believe Weinstein lined up on the wrong side of history, like a climate-change denier, when last year’s AHF media campaign against Truvada labeled it a “party drug.” While he’s since softened his stance, and admits that Truvada is the right decision for some people, he would still really, really, really prefer everyone use condoms instead.
And as he’s not backing down.
This year will bring a new wave of pro-condom initiatives from Weinstein and AHF:
- They’re backing a California-wide version of LA’s condom-in-porn referendum.
- They’re introducing a new line of condoms, called ICON, an alternative to its LOVE-branded condoms for those who aren’t in love.
- And their ubiquitous, absurdist messaging on billboards across Los Angeles and other cities will continue unabated. Some recent hits: “Straight Outta Condoms,” “God Loves HIV+ Me” and “Syphilis Explosion,” pictured with an erupting volcano.
But to detractors who might call his ads obnoxious and slut-shaming, his tactics aggressive and his vision ideological, Weinstein is quick to point out that the work he’s doing makes an impact: AHF treats nearly half a million HIV-positive people in 36 countries via hundreds of clinics, pharmacies and wellness centers, conducting nearly 3 million free HIV tests and distributing 42.6 million free condoms in 2014 alone.
Which is seemingly a big reason why Weinstein is such a controversial figure — when you’re treating something as important as AIDS with such a giant budget and a message that never wavers (condoms are the answer — to everything), you’re bound to make some enemies.
In 2012, AHF helped pass a law in LA County requiring condoms to be used on porn sets during anal and vaginal sex. What were the goals of that ban in terms of sexual health, and is it working?
We’re trying to protect performers, and there are studios that are now filming exclusively with condoms like Wicked. Also as a result of our campaigning, the industry has improved their testing even though we know that testing by itself doesn’t prevent disease. The main problem is that LA County isn’t enforcing the law.
What should they do? Just randomly show up on sets?
In the case of porn, the evidence is widely available: It’s sold to the public, so we know whether companies are using condoms or not. But LA County hasn’t been willing to defend an initiative in court that 1.6 million Angelenos voted for. So the burden has fallen to us to defend the initiative in court. It’s twice been ruled constitutional, but beyond that, LA County holds all of the power to enforce it.
Is there much support for the law in the porn industry?
That’s hard to know. Obviously the producers are not for it, and the performers don’t have a choice.
Outside of the porn industry, are people using condoms less than they used to or is that something more anecdotal?
Studies that we’ve done and studies done by the CDC show that people have, by and large, used condoms during their last sexual encounter. Obviously, we would like to see more condom use, but I’ve written about how I believe there’s a war on prevention and that the condom culture that we’ve built over the last two decades is being eroded.
Why are you calling it a “war on prevention”? What’s war-like about it?
There’s a propaganda blitz about how nobody is using condoms and about how promoting condoms hasn’t been successful. Different people come at it from different points of view. There are people who have condom fatigue or are tired of thinking and talking about it. There are people who believe that sexual freedom is more important than public health. There are people who are against it on moral or religious grounds; they think condom usage promotes promiscuity. Many, many different angles, but the bottom line is that you can’t advertise condoms during prime time television, we don’t have condom distribution in high schools or colleges and most gay bars don’t have them readily available. We’re just not doing a good job of promoting condom use.
Is that the reason for all the AHF-funded billboards promoting condoms? Given how many of them there are around LA, they seem like a significant portion of your marketing budget.
It appears larger in Los Angeles than other cities. Right now I’m in Atlanta and we have a large presence in Atlanta, but there aren’t a lot of billboards here. It isn’t feasible. But all of the billboards give web addresses where you can find more information. So our largest expenditures are online with Google AdWords and other such tactics. Wherever it appears, the goal of our advertising is to be provocative in one way or another.
Is being deliberately provocative is the best way to win condom converts?
Our strategy is to apply many different types of campaigns. Some are deadly serious like the campaign we have up now that says “Syphilis is Serious” with the blind cane. We also, however, have campaigns that are playful. We had a billboard for a while that read “Not Ready for Parenthood” and had a picture of a little kid dumping spaghetti on his head.
We’re trying, first of all, to reach every demographic — young, old, male, female, heterosexual, gay. But most of all, we’re trying to get into people’s subconscious. We’re trying to make them think. For example, right now, we have a campaign up called “Even Me,” which is a collage made up of different people’s faces. It’s meant to raise the question that if you thought HIV testing wasn’t for you, you should think again.
How does last year’s Supreme Court ruling change what it’s like to be gay in America, and what do you think about the future of gay rights?
Normalizing homosexual relationships will create a safer environment for gay men. It’s not a direct outcome, but it will change the culture. As such, it will lower the disease burden. As far as the situation in gay rights, I got married more than two years ago. I never thought that would happen in my lifetime, which is extraordinary.
On the other hand, I travel the world on behalf of AHF, and there are so many places where it’s illegal to be gay. So we have a long way to go in that respect in terms of human rights. But even here in the U.S., the legal victories and the struggle for equality can only take you so far. There are still young people being kicked out of their homes; there are still preachers spewing fire and brimstone from their pulpits. But as importantly, there are some unhealthy aspects of the gay subculture we need to address. The circuit party scene, for example, is built around drug abuse. We haven’t explained to gay men what their risks are in terms of multiple STDs and the like.
How big of a problem do you think meth is in the gay community?
It’s not only meth; it’s molly, G and alcohol. Drug and alcohol abuse is a significant co-factor with STDs, including HIV. We are somewhat defenseless in the sexual heat of the moment; our passions take over. But we’re even more likely to put ourselves at risk when we’re high or when we’re drunk.
If someone is prone to taking drugs and having risky sex, don’t they seem like a good candidate for Truvada — or other alternatives to condoms?
The best candidate for Truvada is someone who never uses a condom and who has multiple partners. I mean, basically, it’s better than nothing. If the person is putting themselves at risk on multiple occasions and having that protection instead of no protection is a good thing. But it’d be better if they used condoms.
Zak Stone is an editor at MEL. He most recently wrote about LocoL, a healthful fast food restaurant that opened in Watts.