Dirty Politics

Whenever I'm faced with a question about an HIV-related issue, I put in a call to the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP). The folks I've gotten to know at the nonprofit have been dealing with HIV, homophobia, and this country's joke of a healthcare system since before I first picked up a reporter's notebook. Which is why they usually come through with the information I need.

So what did I do last month when I read in a report released by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) that MAP was peddling pornography? Why, I gave my friends a call. After all, good porn is hard to come by--especially on company time.

CAGW identifies itself as a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan group. Its 24-page diatribe, "AIDS Programs: An Epidemic of Waste," singles out a number of prevention-oriented programs that are specifically (and probably not coincidentally) designed to boost self-esteem and promote healthy relationships in the queer community. MAP merits a special mention in the report for its sponsorship of a peer-support initiative for gay and bisexual men called PrideAlive. According to CAGW, the most disturbing offering of the group is a program called "Liquid Discourse," which--brace yourself!--"includes education forums on dating, sexuality, spirituality, and political activism." Not exactly the kind of stuff you'll find in the backroom at Shinder's. But hey, if you're really desperate, there are a few pictures on the group's Web site (www.pridealive.org), featuring smiling young men holding hands, dancing, and, yes, dressed in leather pants.

Bob Tracy, MAP's public-policy director, says the report is symptomatic of a shift in the political winds, both in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, efforts to educate at-risk populations--and specifically gay and bisexual males--about healthy sex and protection against sexually transmitted disease are being labeled as reckless, even pornographic. And while there is not one scrap of credible scientific evidence to justify abandoning prevention strategies involving contraception for either heterosexuals or homosexuals, conservatives are once again pitching programs that preach Abstinence Only Until Marriage.

"It's the Reagan era all over again," Tracy fumes. "'Abstinence Only' erases any concept of risk reduction or safe sex. 'Until Marriage' not only brings in a set of religious values, it takes care of all that messy gay stuff as well." In other words, the same folks who want the citizenry to stay out of the sack until after they cut the wedding cake also lobby hard to make sure homosexuals can't be legally married. Clever, don't you think?

When CAGW unveiled its report at a press conference in mid-February, Dr. Thomas Coburn, an obstetrician and co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS (PACHA), was on hand to answer questions. His presence was, at the very least, symbolically significant.

Just after his inauguration, President Bush indicated that he was considering the elimination of the Presidential Commission on AIDS, for which PACHA serves as a citizens advisory board. That didn't go over very well in the wake of the too-close-to-call election--it was perceived as too conservative and not very compassionate in those bygone days before bin Laden. So Bush did a 180, assuring the public that the commission would remain, and the media moved on to more important things. (At the time I think it had something to do with Robert Downey Jr. and speedballs.)

In the meantime Bush stocked PACHA with a host of right-wingers, including executive director Patricia Funderburk Ware, who frequently preaches about the sanctity of abstinence; and Coburn, who, in a 1996 hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act, called homosexuality a perversion.

The advisory council's rhetoric complements the Bush administration's politics and policy initiatives. Last year, for instance, then-Surgeon General David Satcher spoke out against excluding instruction about birth-control education. In turn, the White House refused to back Satcher's report on the nation's sexual health. Recently Bush asked Congress for $135 million for abstinence-only initiatives; to get a piece of the action, organizations such as MAP would have to omit any mention of birth control (read: condoms) in any program that receives those funds.

Two competing bills are about to be debated at the Minnesota legislature. One mandates that public schools implement a program "educating students that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage is the expected standard for sexual behavior." The other is a comprehensive sex-education bill mandating that schools stress the health benefits of abstinence and teach students about safe sex, just in case they aren't able to live life as though it were a Josh Hartnett movie.

Neither bill is likely to make it through the process unscathed, yet AIDS advocates like Tracy are concerned: "My fear is that we're going to end up with what legislators during an election year are going to view as a compromise. But in fact, we'll be shifting from a sex-ed policy that is effective to a public-health message that is about morality, not practicality."

Then again, Tracy and his cohorts at MAP can't even put together a decent porn site. So what do they know?


All the Rage appears every other week. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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