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From Maverick AIDS Activist To Porn Police? The Man Behind Proposition 60

Photo caption:

Photo by April Dembosky / KQED

Performers from the adult film industry protest Proposition 60 outside the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles.

When Mike Stabile first moved to Los Angeles in 2011, he was struck by a billboard he saw along the freeway. It showed a line of cocaine and a turned-over shot glass with the caption: "You know why. Free HIV test."

“I literally pulled over the car and was like, what’s going on?” Stabile said. “I was having a panic attack.”

Another ad showed two men in bed, looking nervous, with the question: “Trust Him?”

“As a gay man, you really have to fight against this idea that you’re constantly in danger,” said Stabile, who came of age during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. “Fear and stigma actually works against people getting tested.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: AIDS Healthcare Foundation

One of many ads sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Stabile said he sees the same heavy-handed, moralistic attitude behind Proposition 60, the state ballot initiative that would require adult film performers to use condoms on porn sets. If they don’t, and state regulators fail to enforce the mandate in a timely manner, any Californian can sue the film producer.

“Its success depends on stigma around sex, stigma around porn,” said Stabile, who now works for the No on 60 campaign.

The man behind Proposition 60 — and all those billboards — is Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and a longtime maverick in gay activist circles.

The nonprofit runs pharmacies and provides HIV care in 13 states and 37 countries, and gave away 38.5 million condoms last year. It’s putting $4.5 million from its pharmacy sales into backing the Proposition 60 condom mandate. (It also put $14.7 million behind Proposition 61, Weinstein’s initiative aimed at lowering drug prices.)

Weinstein said he’s steadfastly promoting condoms when other groups seem to have forgotten them.

“It’s unfashionable,” he said. “I was on a panel discussion and one of the guys said, ‘You’re acting like our mother telling us to wear galoshes.’ And my reaction was, ‘Yeah, somebody needs to do that!’ I mean, I’m not trying to win a popularity contest. Obviously.”

For Weinstein, Proposition 60 is primarily about protecting adult film workers against sexually transmitted diseases at a time when infection rates are at a 20-year high across California. But it’s also another large-scale condom campaign.

“A lot of people get their sex education through these films and I think it’s sending a bad message,” Weinstein said. “I don’t want young people to be educated that the only kind of sex that’s hot is unsafe sex.”

Photo caption:

Photo by April Dembosky / KQED

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in his office in Los Angeles. Behind him is a painting of Chris Brownlie, who worked with Weinstein to found the first AIDS hospice in L.A.

Controversial figure

Weinstein has long taken controversial positions, but he’s often landed on the right side of history. In the 1980s, he fought lawmakers in California who wanted to quarantine AIDS patients. When nurses were afraid touch patients, leaving them languishing in the hallways of county hospitals, he helped set up one of the first AIDS hospices, where people could die with dignity and compassion. And when the AIDS cocktail came out, Weinstein risked bankruptcy to provide the drugs to uninsured patients.

“We decided we had a moral obligation to give them, and we paid for them and those people lived,” Weinstein said.

One of Weinstein’s more recent and most unpopular stances is on PrEP, the daily HIV prevention pill. Many activists consider it a gift from God. Weinstein calls it a party drug.

“It’s often taken in conjunction with crystal meth and other party drugs,” he said. “It’s really a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

Weinstein said it gives people a free pass to not use condoms and be reckless, driving a rise in other STDs, which recent studies bear out. But other public health groups say PrEP will reduce HIV transmission and save lives, which the studies also support.

“It’s not helpful to have one of the largest HIV organizations in the world trivializing it or downplaying its importance,” said Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, director of state and local affairs at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Her group, along with AIDS Project LA, is opposed to Proposition 60 in part because it ignores PrEP. Mulhern-Pearson said Weinstein’s singular focus on condoms is outdated and unrealistic.

“Condom fatigue is real,” she said. “And I think that all of us are probably not realistic and not forthcoming about our condom use.”

History and opposition

Weinstein has been fighting to mandate condoms in adult films for years. While federal and state worker safety laws technically already require producers to protect performers against STDs with condoms, the law is largely ignored and poorly enforced. Weinstein has been pushing Cal/OSHA for years to refine and clarify regulations, without success. He’s backed local measures in Los Angeles County to require condoms, which passed, but enforcement has, again, been minimal.

At every turn, the adult film industry has fought hard against condom mandates. They say it will force them to make products that won’t sell, driving the business underground or out of state.

Photo caption:

Photo by April Dembosky / KQED

Adult film performers rally against Proposition 60 outside Michael Weinstein’s office.

In mid-October, more than 100 adult film performers rallied outside Weinstein’s office in Los Angeles to protest Proposition 60. They chanted slogans like “Our Bodies, Our Choice!” and carried signs that said “Where is Weinstein?”

They say they prefer to rely on the industry’s bimonthly testing protocol over condoms.

Performer Ela Darling said condoms don’t work on porn sets — they’re uncomfortable and cause friction rashes.

“The sex you have on camera isn’t like the sex you have at home,” Darling said. “It’s like Olympic-level, athletic sex.”

She’s frustrated that Weinstein is ignoring their concerns.

“He will not hear us, he will not speak to us, but he’s happy speaking for us,” Darling said. “And that’s the problem.”

Weinstein defends his refusal to meet with the adult film industry.

“I’m not going to put myself in a position of debating people where all they do is call me names,” Weinstein said.

It’s true. Weinstein’s critics have called him bombastic, a bully. They compare him to Donald Trump. They post tweets that refer to him as the "Condom Nazi."

“In case they haven’t noticed, I’m Jewish and I’m gay, OK,” Weinstein said. “It makes my skin curl.”

Weinstein said he’s never liked the limelight. He’s had to develop a thick skin to stay in this business, to stand up for what he believes is the moral thing to do for what he believes is his responsibility toward young generations.

But it’s clear that the criticism bothers him.

“He’s been hurt,” said Sharon Raphael, an old friend and fellow activist. “I know that it hurts him.”

But, she added, everyone knows he’s a force to be reckoned with.

“When most people would be down and out, strike three, he’d get up again,” Raphael said. “He never gives up. Ever.”

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio. Our coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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