CDC to probe San Francisco AIDS group for sexual content


Christopher Lisotta, / Network

SUMMARY: The federal government is investigating the San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project to find out if the nonprofit organization is using its federal funding appropriately.

For the second time in as many years, the federal government is investigating the San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project to find out if the nonprofit organization is using its federal funding appropriately.

According to the Aug. 7 San Francisco Examiner, the newly appointed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Julie Gerberding is sending an investigative team to San Francisco to see if the Stop AIDS Project's provocative "Booty Call" and "Great Sex" workshops are "scientifically sound." Stop AIDS Project relies on federal funding to support many of its programs.

The organization says all of its programs are based on models developed by the CDC, but are tailored to serve the San Francisco community most at risk of getting infected.

"In the Great Sex Workshop, participants use group process, lecture and role-playing to educate each other and develop negotiation skills," said a Stop AIDS Project press release from last November. "The workshop provides a safe space for gay and bisexual men to talk about sex in order to reduce the risk of HIV transmission."

"We are not promoting sex," the release also said. "We are speaking to a community of sexually active adults about reducing the risk of HIV."

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conducted a similar investigation after conservative members of Congress received complaints from local activist and HIV denialist Michael Petrelis. Petrelis, who believes HIV does not cause AIDS, has described the Stop AIDS Project's programs in the past as obscene and profligate.

The audit, written by Janet Rehnquist (daughter of conservative Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist) noted that the HHS Office of the Inspector General felt that some of Stop AIDS Project's programs could be construed as obscene and encouraged sexual activity.

The report also noted, however, that this wouldn't necessarily threaten Stop AIDS Project's federal funds, since obscenity has to be decided on community standards. This means what Rehnquist found obscene in Washington may be quite different from what is considered obscene in San Francisco.

In an interview with Frontiers Magazine last February, former Bush administration AIDS czar Scott Evertz offered support to Stop AIDS Project, saying "They are trying to reach a hard-to-reach population. They claim, and have the numbers to back it up, that they are reaching people that other organizations are not reaching. And assuming they are not breaking the letter or even the spirit of the rules that are attached to CDC federal funds, I think organizations like that should be for the most part left alone."

The HHS investigation led to some accounting changes and other material review procedures by Stop AIDS Project. The changes, however, were not enough to prevent the CDC probe.

"This is what the community asked for, this is what the community approved and this is what the community needs," a Stop AIDS spokesperson said of the group's programs.

What's obscene? GOP's take on Stop AIDS Project
San Francisco Chronicle - Friday, August 16, 2002
by Dave Ford

Perhaps you saw that Centers for Disease Control representatives this week
visited San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project to assess whether the group's
federally funded HIV-prevention efforts were obscene.

Before I go on, I'll just mention this: In what I like to consider my
pretend career, I have spent time doing all sorts of things -- including
being the media spokesman for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in the early

Before that, I was a freelance writer focusing nonexclusively on lesbian and
gay issues with a specialty in the social, psychological and political
ramifications of the AIDS epidemic.

I tell you that so you know my biases up front. And so you know I've seen
things from the inside out, and for a long time.

Here's what I learned back then: Communicating AIDS-prevention messages is
tricky. You're trying to reach a tough demographic. That is especially true
of reaching people of color. Your demographic is young men who have sex with
men. They think about sex. A lot.

So you have to talk about sex. And like all good advertising, your campaign
has to cut through the daily info-overload clutter. So what do you do to
reach this sex-on-the-brain, at-risk group?

You try to reach them in guerrilla ways: bus shelter posters, flyers at
dance clubs, wall ads above urinals. You're trying to communicate a basic
message -- play safe; stay HIV-negative; use condoms -- in a way your
demographic can hear it.

You show, you know, kind of risky images. Maybe naked men. Maybe men
kissing. Maybe men hugging or holding or stroking or posing.
That is not the kind of thing bluenoses like. It's not the sort of thing,
for example, that Republican lawmakers take to -- except as an easy target
to attack in order to show their conservative base they're preventing the
decay of civilization.

Exhibit A: Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who recently urged new CDC Director
Julie Gerberding to check into the Stop AIDS Project's campaigns. The
questions: Are federal funds being used to encourage sexual activity, and
are the campaigns they fund broaching community obscenity standards?
Please. Campaigns targeting HIV-prevention to young gay men don't ipso facto
encourage sexual activity. They may encourage certain precautions during
sexual activity, but I've never seen one, or even heard one discussed during
planning meetings, that says, "Go forth and, uh, do it."

As to community obscenity standards: Hi. Hello? This is San Francisco. This
is the gay community in San Francisco. The only thing considered obscene
there -- where sexual aids stand tall in shop windows -- is trying to build
a shelter for homeless gay youth. Property values threatened? Now that's

There is some argument as to whether HIV-prevention campaigns -- especially
the pretty and sexy posters -- really work. It is debated inside AIDS
agencies as well as without.

I remember sitting in a meeting -- this is when people were still dying of
the disease in alarming numbers -- and having a dispiriting image of a
bloody tidal wave with our agency sticking a single finger into the quickly
crumbling dam. The finger? Another pretty poster.

But well-designed posters often are just one part of larger prevention
campaigns that include facilitated talk groups, street outreach efforts and
other means of reaching the target demographic. And they're a necessary

Anyway, aesthetics aside, the issue is this: Conservative lawmakers are
attacking gay community programs with an intensity rarely seen since the
Reagan years.

It smacks of cultural backsliding. It smacks of cheap politicizing. And it
reminds some of us of a dark era when gay sex was the subject of Supreme
Court cases, and Christian fundamentalists created a gay scare to raise

What happened then was that the gay community banded together and fought --
long and hard -- both for better HIV treatments and, by extension, for a
different cultural view of homosexuality in America. It worked, though the
historically averse among us may not know that.

So Souder and his ilk need to be put on notice: Prepare for a fight. The gay
community and its allies can be really tough. The community's political
muscle may have gone slightly flabby in the comfy '90s (even as its real
muscles ridiculously hardened), but gays and lesbians can be rugged as
mountains and just as solid.
When they need to be.

e-mail Dave Ford at




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