The saga dates to the day a gay activist told Republican Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida that taxpayer dollars were funding a drag queen beauty contest in San Francisco.
"I thought it was quite bizarre and began to look into it," Weldon recalls.
What he and other members of Congress found was a slew of promotional events, funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that they believe encouraged sexual behavior rather than helped prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Among the other promotions they found in the Stop AIDS "Sex in the City" series:
— "Booty Call," featuring sex toys and gay masturbation techniques
— "Great Sex Workshop," featuring "hands-on," "clothes-on" exploration of gay "intimacy and fantasy"
— "Different Strokes," featuring gay masturbation and safe-sex pleasures
— A live bondage/sadomasochistic "show" featuring toys, role-playing and "scene negotiation"
All the events were sponsored by the Stop AIDS Project in San Francisco, which, like many HIV/AIDS prevention groups in the San Francisco Bay area, receives federal support. In fiscal 2000, Stop AIDS received $698,000 from the CDC for programs that it says are highly targeted and very effective in reaching the group highest at risk from AIDS — gay men.
Weldon and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., unswayed, complained to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who ordered an investigation into the matter. The investigators concluded that "some of the information presented in the workshops, in our opinion, could be viewed as encouraging directly … sexual activity."
Their report also concluded that some of the advertisements sponsored by Stop AIDS could be construed as "obscene."
Since the initial report, released in October, HHS has promised an investigation into the CDC's funding of all HIV/AIDS prevention organizations.
The two congressmen do not believe the money is currently being well spent.
"Some of these groups have blatantly misused federal funds," said Roland Foster, an aide for Souder's Government Affairs subcommittee, which is hoping to hold hearings on the issue. "They [CDC] are just throwing money out there without monitoring how these groups are spending it. This is not something that should be taken lightly."
Preliminary data released last week by the CDC indicates that the number of new AIDS cases in America rose 8 percent last year, from 38,864 in 2000 to 42,008 in 2001, most of them the result of gay sex, according to the CDC. About 355,409 people were suffering from full-blown AIDS as of December 2000, the CDC says.
Stop AIDS and its counterparts say their messages are reaching those most at risk for the disease: gay and bisexual men in the inner cities.
"We did everything by the book, we did everything by the rules and we'll continue to do that," says Stop AIDS executive director Darlene Weide. All the groups programs, she said, passed muster with local public health review boards and were built on the CDC model and standards.
In addition, Weide said the group only sponsors events for venues where they know there is a limited, targeted audience — not the general public.
Charles Henry, director of the Los Angeles County Office of AIDS Programs and Policy, said he welcomes the debate over what kind of messages are appropriate for prevention today, but warns that limiting the message to what Washington deems effective might not be the solution.
"I think the debate is a fair one and important to reinvigorating prevention," he said. "But prevention messages [are] challenging, we have to constantly reinvent them — it's hard to get people to change their behavior."
Democratic Sen. Nancy Pelosi of California is standing behind Stop Aids and its counterparts. In a letter released in December, she called the HHS investigators' report "mischaracterizations," that could "undermine the work of an effective organization, and inadvertently contribute to the burden of disease and death among gay and bisexual men."
Weldon and Souder's offices recognize that their positions on the issue might be viewed as "politically incorrect." But they say there is no reason not to discuss where billions of taxpayer dollars are going each year — especially when the number of new AIDS cases is going up, not down.
Weldon, who as a physician has treated patients with AIDS, said he supports prevention efforts but will not be cowed by the powerful AIDS lobby. "Just because you're gay doesn't mean you can spend the money any way you want to, especially if its inappropriately," he said. "Somebody needs to be scrutinizing this more closely."