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A Good Story is Worth Repeating: The SVBJ Calls Michael Weinstein Enemy No. 1

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Mark Madler writes at the San Fernando Valley Business Journal: To get a sense of what the San Fernando Valley adult film industry is up against in Michael Weinstein– the advocate who has led the fight to require condom use on sets – go back to last year.

That’s when his AIDS Healthcare Foundation decided to take on the FDA in Washington, D.C. as the agency considered giving approval to Truvada,which not only treats HIV and AIDS but has shown effectiveness in preventing infection.

Weinstein and his Hollywood nonprofit objected out of fear that takers of the drug would feel emboldened to engage in unprotected sex. At the time, he said approval would be a “reckless” deci- sion by the agency.

But this was no lone blogger with nothing to lose casting aspersions. His foundation, better known as AHF, bills itself as the largest health care
provider for patients with HIV and AIDS. In 2011, the organization received $39.6 million in federal Medicare funding alone.

In typical Weinstein fashion, he was more than comfortable biting the hands that feeds him.

His organization has tangled with drug companies, sued the L.A. County Health Department and even other AIDS health care organizations– all in the name of standing up for people who are either at-risk or have already contracted HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

And adult performers are clearly in that group.

“One motivation is we do not regard any group, including adult performers, as disposable,” Weinstein said in an interview at the AHF offices. Weinstein lost that fight over Truvada when the FDA went ahead and approved the drug as a preventative measure in combination with safe-sex practices.

But the 60-year-old health advocate – who even admirers admit can be abrasive and challenging to work with – has far more wins than losses when it comes to standing up for what he sees as his constituency, as the adult industry has come to learn.

Last year, Weinstein and AHF were instrumental in the passage of a Los Angeles city ordinance requiring condoms use in adult film shoots within the city, and of Measure B to bring the same regulation throughout Los
Angeles County.

Now, a bill sought by AHF and pending before lawmakers in Sacramento would cover all of California. Weinstein is trying to head off adult production companies from moving outside the county to more hospitable communities in the state.

The industry opposes mandatory condom use, contending its HIV testing regime works fine – and consumers of adult entertainment do not want to see performers with condoms.

Steve Hirsch, co-chairman of Vivid Entertainment, one of the largest adult production houses in the Valley, called Weinstein passionate but hardheaded about the condom issue.

“People don’t want to be told what kind of art they want to create and to get governmentapproval before they can make it,” Hirsch said.

“I really don’t know what the motivation is and why he is so passionate (on this issue). I’m assuming he wants AHF to be out there, and was willing to spend a lot of money to put (Measure B) on the ballot.”

Others who have locked horns with Weinstein are less kind, saying he has an overbearing ego, is a bully and is turning the adult industry into the enemy for fundraising purposes.

Jeff Douglas, chairman of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult industry trade association in Canoga Park, believes that Weinstein is targeting the industry to benefit AHF.

“To generate money in an organization like his you need an enemy, something to generatefear and outrage. He has picked us, which is most regrettable,” said Douglas, an attorney who represents clients in the industry.

Weinstein grew up in Brooklyn with his parents and a sister. He attended the High School of Art & Design in Manhattan and after graduating moved to Los Angeles in 1973. Prior tohis involvement with AIDS-related organizations Weinstein owned and operated Gold Medal Chocolates, a wholesale candy business.

In 1986, Weinstein served as coordinator of the Stop the AIDS Quarantine Committee, which opposed Proposition 64, a ballot measure backed by political activist Lyndon LaRouche that would have listed AIDS as a communicable disease.

Weinstein then became director of the Los Angeles AIDS Hospice Committee, which led the fight for hospice care in the mid-1980s. He co-founded AIDS Hospice Foundation in 1987, which three years later changed its name to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Weinstein serves as president of the foundation.

After 26 years, Weinstein has left his personal stamp on a lot of what goes on at the non-profit, which in 2011 had a budget of $330 million. He has grown it into a worldwide organization employing more than 1,700 workers in multiple business units: outpatient health care centers in California, Florida and Washington, D.C.; pharmacies; Out of the Closet thrift stores; and a managed care program in California.

It treats patients in 24 foreign countries, including in Eastern Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, including some of the poorest countries, such as Haiti, Uganda and Nepal.

Each year it treats 125,000 patients worldwide. From the beginning, AHF has operated on a principle of helping those with HIV and protecting the greater public from exposure. That strategy has become controversial within the AIDS community. Other advocacy groups object because it involves reporting HIV cases by name and testing all newborns for HIV.

AHF also supported requiring West Hollywood bars to make condoms available to patrons.

“Whether you like us or don’t like us, there is a coherent philosophy that public health is one of the great challenges of our times,” Weinstein said.

In Weinstein’s office is evidence of the support he and AHF has received over the years – resolutions from the California Assembly, and the city and county of Los Angeles as well as color photos of Weinstein with prominent backers such as NBA great Magic Johnson, who is HIV positive. Weinstein himself is openly gay, has a longtime partner and said he
has not contracted HIV.

During his career, Weinstein has taken controversial stances and actions in the name of that guiding principle of protecting public health. That has at times put AHF on its own in terms of advocacy positions.

There is the Truvada protest; the criticism in 2007 of Pfizer Inc. for an ad campaign for Viagra that AHF claimed made the erectile dysfunction pill into “a party drug” encouraging reckless behavior; and protests in 2010 outside the now closed AIM Healthcare Foundation clinic in Sherman Oaks, a testing site for adult performers.

Even other AIDS organizations have been subject to Weinstein’s uncompromising approach. AHF started a fundraising walk in Florida in 2006 that competed with an existing walk, with the AHF event becoming the larger of the two. And in 2010, AHF launched a fundraising walk as competition for the AIDS Walk Los Angeles, which was started in 1985 by the AIDS Project Los Angeles.

Scott Galvin, a member of the AHF board who resides in Florida, does not dispute that Weinstein can be aggressive, but said Weinstein is fearless and not afraid to be unconventional to accomplish his goals.

Before AHF, the care for HIV positive patients in Florida was poor, with some of the longest waiting times in the U.S. to get medications, Galvin said.

“Five years from now and if a cure for AIDS is found, there is still a role for the organization to play thanks to the visionary stuff we are doing now,” Galvin said. “He has set the organization so well for the future.”

Weinstein said his desire to fight stems from his experiences in the early 1980s when AIDS first appeared. It was “a moral outrage” that the disease was able to spread without intervention from any government and “sinful” that its early victims – gay males, drug users and Africans – were seen as expendable.

“When you have been through those kinds of fires of hell, it is hard to scare you or back you down,” he said.

Now it’s the adult entertainment industry against which Weinstein wants to beat and he won’t be satisfied until condoms are used in all adult productions.

The Measure B campaign to make condoms mandatory in Los Angeles County showed the power of Weinstein’s organization. The AHF spent about $1.1 million to get the measure on the ballot and another $1.2 million on the campaign, Weinstein said. The AHF was the only donor to the Yes on Measure B campaign, according to campaign finance disclosure forms filed with the county.

The AHF was the Goliath to the Free Speech Coalition’s David, which spent less money despite having a membership of porn production companies with deep pockets, including Manwin USA, the domestic branch of a Luxembourg porn conglomerate that operates Playboy’s web and mobile content.

The No on Measure B campaign also received support from Valley Industry & Commerce Association, in editorials from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News, and a majority of adult performers.

“Once he gets it on the ballot it was a numbers game,” said Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition.

Accusations of lies and distortions were claimed by both sides. Measure B passed by 57 percent to 43 percent of the votes. The measure requires adult film producers to obtain a public health permit from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and complete a blood-borne pathogen training course prior to filming. A fee collected by the county would offset the cost of enforcement.

Weinstein credits the victory to having a message that resonated with voters and sticking with that message – condoms in porn was an issue of health, safety and fairness.

“I think by most people’s measure a 57-43 margin is a landslide,” Weinstein said. The Free Speech Coalition, production house Vivid Entertainment, and two female performers have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles challenging Measure B on constitutional grounds.

But the measure already has had a noticeable effect. Since its passage, filming in Los Angeles County has dropped off considerably, according to industry insiders. Some production companies are weighing their options of whether to stay in California.

Douglas, the attorney, would not disclose the names of the companies he was told are considering moving but said the number was small and may not be representative.

“It may well be companies are taking a wait and see approach to the status of the litigation six months from now before deciding to go through the effort of relocating,” Douglas said. “That seems prudent.”

However, Weinstein sees condoms in porn as an issue the foundation is ahead of the curve on, just as the group took early stances on needle-exchange programs to cut down HIV exposure and advocating for lower cost drugs to treat AIDS.

“It is amazing to me that this lowly piece of latex should be so controversial,” Weinstein said. Still, there has not been an outbreak of HIV on an adult set since 2004 after actor Darren James contracted the virus and then infected three actresses. But Weinstein said the foundation’s push for condoms in porn reflects a broader scope adopted in recent years to prevent all sexually transmitted diseases.

Weinstein claims there is an epidemic of STDs – chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis – in the adult industry, a notion scoffed at by industry representatives.

In 2011, the Free Speech Coalition hired epidemiologist Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer to review two studies done by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on the rate of STDs among adult performers as compared to the general population. Mayer found the studies flawed, poorly documented and lacking in transparency.

“They do not document the methodology used to derive their estimates,” Mayer wrote.

“In the absence of this detail, it is not possible to confirm the validity of their results.”

For years, the industry has been self-policing when it comes to the health of the perform- ers – a practice it wants to continue without government intervention. The Free Speech Coalition estimates there are about 2,000 active performers in the U.S., with about one-fifth living in the Los Angeles area. The performers are tested every 14 to 28 days, more often than the general public, Duke said.

And while the stereotype image among the public is of actors and actresses over-indulging in promiscuity and drug use, the reality is different, she said. The adult community tends to be a tight knit group where performers get involved with other performers because they understand the profession.

“Their body is their livelihood and they take care of them,” Duke said.

“Those outside the industry just do not know.”

Tanya Tate is a performer since 2008 who lives in the San Fernando Valley and opposes condoms while filming, though she asks new sexual partners in her personal life to use them.

“If I were to get in a relationship I would want to them to get tested until I felt comfortable to sleep with them without a condom,” she said.

“(Weinstein) should be spending money on treating (AIDS) and educating regular people about how to protect themselves instead of going after a small community that is aware of the risks.”

But while Weinstein concedes there are a small number of performers, he said they exert an outsized influence on young people through their films.

“That is one of their prime sources of sex education,” he said. “Condoms have not gotten this much publicity in a very long time.”


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