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Sex-Culture Pluralists Address Gay/ Lesbian Health Conference

Advocates Strategize Circuit Parties, Barebacking & Leathersex

Cross-Generational Crowd Discusses
Viagra & Gay Male Users

Compiled by Badpuppy's GayToday
From Health Issues & Sex Culture Reports

A controversial track of workshops focused on "Health Issues Facing Gay Men's Sexual Cultures" at this year's National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference drew hundreds of energized participants to workshops on circuit parties, leather sex, and "safer" barebacking, and also attracted a large and cross-generational crowd to a community forum on Viagra use among gay men held in San Francisco's Castro District.

Hart Roussel, a conference participant from Albuquerque, New Mexico, captured many gay men's feelings about this breakthrough track: "These workshops demolished the good gay/bad gay dichotomy and discussed gay men's sex cultures thoughtfully, even critically, yet without pathologizing them." hlth803a.gif - 15.69 K Hart Roussel

Organized by a group of gay male health activists--including Eric Rofes, author of Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures, Michael Scarce, coordinator of LGBT resources at University of California, San Francisco; Tony Valenzuela, Los Angeles-based author and activist; Chris Bartlett of Philadelphia's Safeguards Project, Richard Elovich from New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis, and Race Bannon, an organizer in the San Francisco leather community--the workshops were among the highlights of this year's health conference and generated extensive discussion and debate among conference participants.

The purpose of the workshop track as stated by the conveners in the introductory session was "neither to judge nor engage in endless debate about whether drugs, muscles, leather, or sex are 'right' or 'wrong.' Instead, we hope to move the discussion to another level and assist health providers working with gay men in addressing the health promotion and harm reduction needs of gay men who participate in these diverse subcultures within our communities."

Some of the workshop session discussions became highly-charged and a bit contentious. "Sure there were tensions in the room when gay male HIV prevention workers talked about their own experiences using drugs or attending bareback parties or circuit events," said Jonathan Martin of Boulder County AIDS Project in Colorado. "It's so hard for people to separate their own experiences from those of the community, even when space is provided. Our communities forget we're part of the sexual cultures we're working with."

rofes2.gif - 12.61 K Eric Rofes Eric Rofes and Chris Bartlett organized a one-day pre-conference institute which drew over 100 participants. The institute focused on Rofes' controversial book and a discussion of "post-AIDS" or "post-crisis" HIV prevention work with gay men in the United States and provided the theoretical frame for the track.
Rofes explained that his book argues that "the event of AIDS as developed in urban gay centers in the mid-1980s--and characterized as "crisis"--no longer fits most gay men's everyday experience of the epidemic, even as the disease of AIDS continues."

Bartlett then discussed the transformation of Philadelphia's Safeguards program from one focused specifically on HIV prevention to one focused largely on gay men's health, broadly-defined. "The SafeGuards Project has taken on crucial gay men's health issues, including hepatitis prevention, intergenerational support, and health care access," declared Bartlett. "This work compliments our HIV prevention in a powerful way."

hlth803c.gif - 16.60 KPerhaps the most controversial workshop was Michael Scarce and Tony Valenzuela's "Reducing the Risk of Doing It Raw: Strategies for Barebacking Harm Education," which moved beyond the typical "Is barebacking good or bad" conversation and focused on how health providers and activists could assist barebackers in reducing their risk of acquiring HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases should they decide to forgo the use of condoms.

Scarce said, "By and large, AIDS prevention efforts have written off barebackers, demonizing them as the posterboys of unsafe sex, rather than meeting them where they are. We need a concrete and specific harm reduction approach that might not always include condom use." Scarce circulated a draft document titled "Possible Barebacking Harm Reduction Strategies," which included key information including:

  • Popper use dilates blood vessels in the rectum and leaves men more vulnerable to infection;

  • Lubricant should always be used, not just spit, as it helps prevent small tears which allow infection transmissions between tops and bottoms;

  • Early withdrawal before ejaculation can substantially reduce risk but is not a foolproof method of prevention transmission of HIV and other STDs;

  • "Rationing your barebacking over time can limit the number of exposures and sex partners."

  • Scarce's draft also included discussion of negotiation with partners, before and after-care (i.e. appropriate times for douching and washing), and monitoring of immunity.

    "We wanted to move past moral judgments of bareback sex, " said Tony Valenzuela, a panelist, "and provide supportive and useful information to meet these gay men who bareback where they are at. And, not surprisingly, we quickly realized that barebackers were not simply out there--a small, hidden pocket of the community--but here at the health conference and among HIV prevention workers and gay male health providers."

    On Tuesday, July 28, Valenzuela chaired a workshop titled "Bad Boys Du Jour" which focused on the circuit party phenomena and included Dr. Drew Mattison, San Diego-based co-author of The Male Couple; Alan Brown, publisher of the circuit culture e-zine Electronic Dreams frequently dubbed "the voice of the circuit," Don Spradlin, a San Francisco based party producer, and Dr. Chris Carrington, from San Francisco State University. Carrington and Mattison are engaged in ongoing research into the circuit and presented early, tentative findings of their studies.

    Mattison's preliminary data suggested many men attending circuit party weekends may not engage in sex throughout the weekend, though substantial numbers of men at the events engage in substance use.

    Other key events in the track included a Viagra Forum in the Castro, featuring Dr. Marshall Forstein of Fenway Community Health Center in Boston; Sex and Queer Liberation, presented by Chris Bartlett and Ryan Goldner of Philadelphia's SafeGuards Project, "Leather Health: Mental and Physical Health Issues in Contemporary Gay Male Leather Cultures," featuring a panel of San Francisco doctors and mental health clinicians, and "Drugs in Partyland" led by Richard Elovich of Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York which focused on harm reduction approaches to gay men's substance use.

    One conference participant from Philadelphia said, "This year's track covering recreational drug use and circuit parties is long overdue. More information in these areas is needed to better understand the circuit phenomenon and to stop stigmatizing our cultures and communities."

    Another participant, Andy Bagnall, who works at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, said, "What I liked best about the track was that we were able to bring our level of discussions on circuit parties, drug use, barebacking and other topics to the next level. Rather than endless bickering and infighting, we could talk about meanings of the acts and ways to address them in our work."

    Carey Johnson, from the Brattleboro Area AIDS Project in Vermont, said "I always enjoy the opportunity to come together with other people addressing the health needs of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. In my own community, I've necessarily broadened my approach to HIV prevention to include a comprehensive model of health and wellness and it is gratifying to see a national trend in that direction. However, our future depends on educating our institutions, particularly our funders, on these trends."

    The organizers announced plans to return to next year's National Lesbian and Gay Health Conference in July 1999 in Dallas and facilitate a similar track of workshops.

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