Chapter 1: A Textbook for Righteous Rebels?

AHF's Righteous Rebels

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to a certain type of rebel. The one that catches my eye and gives me inspiration tends to be modest and thoughtful and selfless to some degree. He or she eschew fads and common wisdom and instead lives by a deep sense of what’s right and just, even if that means being at odds with large swaths of the population, which happens often. He or she is smart but not overly intellectual or academic. That would prevent that person from seeing certain realities, and then go about challenging them. But perhaps the overriding trait of this individual is an all-consuming desire, maybe even an obsession, to live a life that’s true. This righteous rebel often has a fear of selling him- or herself out.

Sometime in the winter of 1998, in Los Angeles, I met Michael Weinstein, the cofounder and president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. I had no idea what kind of person he was or what drove him, and I didn’t know whether AHF was doing anything all that important. Miki Jackson, a close friend of Weinstein’s and a well-connected community activist whom I talked with often, introduced us at a civic event.

At the time, I had just moved to Los Angeles from New York City, and I was working as a reporter at The Hollywood Independent, a small community newspaper that covered the famous L.A. neighborhood, not the entertainment industry. Weinstein, on the other hand, had been leading AHF since its founding in 1987. He was fit and trim, sharp featured, and forty-six years old. He wore a dark suit and tie with his black hair slicked back. He looked like a Wall Street hotshot, not the president of a nonprofit AIDS medical-care provider.

We only talked briefly, but Weinstein came across as smart and quick-witted, with touches of modesty and shyness. He also exuded a palpable energy that I associated with my favorite kind of New Yorker; I later learned he was born in Brooklyn. After our conversation, I decided to keep an eye on Weinstein and AHF. Every now and then, I wrote a story about the organization.

It wasn’t until January 25, 2000, that Weinstein popped up on my radar in a singular way. I’d picked up the Los Angeles Times that morning and read with some confusion that he was being vilified as a “condom Nazi.” Even more baffling was that the controversy was taking place in West Hollywood, a small city that’s wedged between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles and considered one of the world’s gay meccas.

Weinstein was Jewish, gay, and a longtime AIDS activist, and someone had gone around to several gay bars in West Hollywood and put up posters of Weinstein with the wildly offensive moniker. The poster claimed that he was “an enemy of the gay community” who had “betrayed us,” and it compared him to such anti-gay demagogues as Senator Jessie Helms and Jerry Falwell, cofounder of the Moral Majority, a fundamentalist Christian group. Weinstein’s sin, I learned from reading the article, was that AHF pushed for an HIV/AIDS prevention program in which nearly all West Hollywood bars and nightclubs—gay and straight—would be mandated by the city to offer free condoms and safer-sex literature to customers. Bar and nightclub owners wouldn’t be asked to pay a cent.

The crazed rhetoric aimed at Weinstein wasn’t the only puzzling thing. For decades, West Hollywood had been a popular red light district, where straight and gay folks patronized the city’s many bars and nightclubs. People partied hard with drugs and alcohol and hooked up. But chemically impaired people were more likely to practice unsafe sex—and contract and spread sexually transmitted diseases. In the age of AIDS, which had just killed more people in 1999 than any previous year, a bowl of free condoms at a West Hollywood bar or nightclub seemed wholly sensible, if not obligatory.

In addition, West Hollywood’s gay residents had been rocked by the deadly AIDS epidemic. In fact, in 2000, city officials pointed out that although West Hollywood’s population (35,874) was less than one-half of one percent of Los Angeles County’s population (9.5 million), the small city had a whopping seven percent of the county’s HIV/AIDS cases. Local public health officials estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 adults (eighteen to sixty-four years old) in L.A. County were infected with HIV/AIDS. That meant between 2,100 and 2,800 West Hollywood residents were living with HIV.

That alarming statistic didn’t tell the whole story.

Most, if not all, of the HIV/AIDS cases in West Hollywood involved men who have sex with men. City officials believed that roughly one-third of West Hollywood’s total population—or 11,838 people—was gay adults. The overwhelming majority were men—few lesbians lived in the city then. If 2,800 people had HIV/AIDS in West Hollywood, that meant a potentially devastating 24 percent of the city’s gay and bisexual male population was HIV positive.

With those kinds of statistics, one would think that West Hollywood’s political and community leaders, which included bar and nightclub owners, would do anything to help protect people and lower the city’s outrageous infection rate. Instead, bar and nightclub owners vociferously opposed the free condom program, particularly gay bar owners, who were probably behind the “condon Nazi” posters. They believed that condoms and pamphlets would offend customers and drive them away. A perceived threat to profits, rather than a public health epidemic, was the bar owners’ chief concern.

In the months that followed the “condom Nazi” episode, Weinstein and AHF continued to stand up and take the heat. The West Hollywood City Council was another story.

Under heavy political pressure from bar owners, the council passed a watered-down “voluntary” condom program, in which the city would work with targeted bars and nightclubs to distribute free condoms rather than have all nightspots offer them. The so-called compromise was less sweeping and opened the program to backroom deals with city officials if certain owners still refused to offer bowls of condoms. AHF pushed for a ballot measure so voters could override the city council and approve the organization’s proposal, but that failed in 2001. West Hollywood residents voted “no” by 53 percent.

“There is an underlying prudishness that came out in this,” Weinstein told the L.A. Times after AHF’s defeat. “A lot felt the government shouldn’t play a role and business shouldn’t be required to play a role in condom distribution, that it’s a matter of personal responsibility.”

Regardless of the outcome, Weinstein struck me as gutsy and principled, and I admired his aggressive, outspoken, tenacious style. He not only clashed with bar owners and politicians (years later, in 2014, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told the L.A. Times that Weinstein was “out of control”), but with other activists and organizations within the AIDS movement.

Many years after the West Hollywood condom battle, Peter Staley, a well-known AIDS activist who starred in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague, told Slate magazine, “If there’s one thing that every AIDS activist knows, it’s that Michael Weinstein is not an AIDS activist. Yes, he’s the CEO of the ‘largest AIDS organization in the country’—based on revenue—but from the get-go, his tactic for building this empire has been taking contrarian positions that assure his placement in almost any article that appears about the latest HIV/AIDS debate.”

Sean Strub, a longtime AIDS activist and founder of POZ magazine, told me via an email interview, “It is like [AHF and Weinstein] start from the position of figuring out how many people they can piss off rather than finding allies, or finding where they share ground with others.”

Those criticisms were typical of what I had heard about Weinstein over the years, but they never rang true to me.

By 2007, I was a staff writer for L.A. Weekly, one of the top alternative newspapers in the United States. When I wrote about gay rights or gay men’s health issues, I often contacted Weinstein. He had a different way of seeing things, and he could be counted on for thoughtful, if not provocative, ideas that needed saying, but that few others had the courage to express publicly.

After California voters passed Proposition 8 on November 4, 2008, I interviewed Weinstein. The infamous ballot measure, which was later declared unconstitutional, had taken away the existing right of same-sex couples to marry in California. Numerous gay-rights groups had run the official “No on 8” campaign to keep same-sex marriage legal, and many political observers believed they had done a disastrous job fighting the anti-gay-marriage forces. Few gay leaders, however, immediately talked to the press with their criticisms. Just coming off a shocking loss, they didn’t believe the time was right for a very public, thorough dissection of the No on 8 campaign, which would rock any number of boats within the gay political establishment. Weinstein wasn’t so hesitant.

“When is the time to finger-point?” Weinstein said to me for an article. “After we lose again? Look at what the Republicans are doing [after Obama’s victory]. They’re sizing everyone up.”

Weinstein then urged younger gay-rights activists to hold No on 8 leaders, who had been blaming others for the loss, accountable.

“It’s important for people to tell the truth,” he said, “and it’s important for the young generation to demand the truth.”

For a 2012 L.A. Weekly story about gay men’s health, I asked Weinstein about a popular theory among academics called the “minority stress model.” It essentially put forth the idea that the stress of living with discrimination and homophobia caused serious health problems among gay men. Gay-rights leaders and health experts then used that theory to explain why gay men used drugs and alcohol more than straight men, suffered depression at higher rates than straight men, and engaged in risky sexual behavior that resulted in high rates of HIV and STD infections. Weinstein thought the minority stress model was a cop-out.

“All the sociological factors are just an explanation after the fact,” Weinstein told me then. “It’s an excuse. It may even be a valid one, but it’s still an excuse.”

His remark flew in the face of victimhood politics pushed by many gay researchers and activists, and it challenged gay men to honestly look at their own behavior rather than blaming others for their health issues.

In fact, a sociology professor I also interviewed for the article made a strong case for a concept called “reference group theory,” in which an individual’s close friends and associates set the standard for what’s acceptable behavior, and then that person follows suit. For example, if a gay individual is surrounded by intimates who engage in risky sexual behavior, that person is more likely to engage in risky sex. On the flip side, if friends always practice safer sex, a person is more likely to do the same. The stress of living with homophobia, according to the professor, didn’t have as much impact on gay men’s health and destructive behavior as did their friends.

Too often, though, gay leaders refused to publicly confront the messy issues that affected the health of gay men. After decades of persecution, they reasoned, they didn’t want to give homophobes any ammunition to demean the LGBT community and stop the gay rights movement. It was a public relations strategy that Weinstein wanted no part of. He once told me that saving lives, rather than saving face, was what mattered most—and you couldn’t save lives without talking honestly and openly.

As time went on, I had come to know more of AHF’s story, the nut of which was mind-boggling and profound. It was also largely untold—the Los Angeles press, except for a reporter or two, seemed unable to grasp that AHF was a hometown success story on a global scale. Started by a handful of friends who had no money, lots of grit, and an intense desire to comfort the dying through hospice care, AHF eventually turned into the world’s largest AIDS medical-care provider, serving arguably the most vulnerable people on the planet: women, the poor, gays, people of color, transgender people, and intravenous drug users.

By 2013, AHF worked in thirty-two countries, including the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, China, India, Cambodia, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Haiti, and Argentina; provided life-saving HIV drugs and medical services to over 276,000 registered clients; and operated with an $857 million budget and 1,906 staffers. Additionally, in 2013, AHF had performed nearly two million free HIV tests around the globe, including 129,326 tests in the United States; identified 72,584 people who were HIV positive; and distributed nearly 34 million free condoms worldwide. These were big, bold contributions to the global AIDS fight that no other organization in the world had come close to duplicating. Yet in 1987, the organization started in L.A. with one, poorly paid full-time employee—Michael Weinstein—and $50,000 in the bank.

In my mind, someone had to write about this, so I approached Weinstein with the idea of a book project. He was interested, but said early on that he didn’t want the focus solely on him. He also said he wanted an honest book, which was exactly what I wanted to hear. During the fall of 2013, Weinstein suggested that I do preliminary research while he decided whether or not to move forward with the project.

Between October and December, I interviewed AHF employees and saw the everyday work of HIV prevention and treatment; talked with Weinstein and high-level managers such as senior vice-president Peter Reis, global advocacy chief Terri Ford, chief of public affairs and general counsel Tom Myers, Public Health Division senior director Whitney Engeran-Cordova, and Africa Bureau chief Dr. Penninah Iutung Amor; and attended several AHF marketing meetings where domestic and international advocacy campaigns were hashed out.

I also went to a spirited AHF protest at the Chinese consulate-general in Los Angeles over China’s failure to make significant contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; visited AHF’s Rose Parade float that aimed to fight discrimination and stigma by celebrating same-sex marriage equality; and watched AHF kick off its ambitious 20x20 campaign, which challenged world leaders and AIDS organizations to bring twenty million people into HIV treatment by the year 2020, with AHF pledging to care for one million of them. To my mind, AHF was relentless, and restless, in its fight against AIDS—and with good reason.

More than thirty years into the epidemic, an estimated thirty-five million people are living with HIV/AIDS around the globe. Every day, four thousand individuals die from AIDS-related illnesses. In the U.S., about fifty thousand people are newly infected each year, and UNAIDS estimated that between sixteen thousand and twenty-seven thousands Americans died from AIDS in 2012.

Worldwide, 2.1 million people are newly infected with HIV annually. Since the early 1980s, according to UNAIDS, seventy-eight million people have contracted HIV/AIDS and thirty-nine million have died from AIDS-related illnesses. There is still no vaccine for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, also known as “HIV,” which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

Since the early 1980s, when HIV was discovered, the transmission of the virus has not changed. According to the CDC, Americans are most often infected by engaging in anal sex (“the highest-risk sexual behavior”) or vaginal sex; by sharing needles or syringes or other equipment with an HIV-positive injection drug user; or (less commonly) by receiving a blood transfusion contaminated with HIV. Being born to an HIV-positive mother who is not taking HIV medications is another way. Having multiple sexual partners or having other sexually transmitted diseases increases the chances of a person getting HIV through sex. These modes of transmission take place in other countries, and vaginal sex or shared needles are the primary ways people are infected in many parts of the world.

The global problem now is finding people who are HIV positive and getting them on life-saving, highly effective antiretroviral therapy, also known as ART. In 2013, UNAIDS estimated that only thirteen million people out of the world’s thirty-five million HIV/AIDS cases had access to ART, and nineteen million were unaware that they were infected with HIV. In the United States, only 37 percent of the people living with HIV are taking antiretroviral therapy.

Treatment is an essential tool to stop the global spread of HIV and AIDS. A landmark study known as “HPTN 052,” which was published in 2011, found that if a person living with HIV dutifully takes his or her medication, that individual is 96 percent less likely to infect other people than someone who is not taking medication. So treatment not only keeps people from dying but also stops the spread of the HIV. Within the global AIDS movement, such a concept is known as Treatment as Prevention, or TasP.

The AHF team, which works on the front lines of the worldwide AIDS epidemic, is keenly aware of these statistics and challenges. Sounding a note of urgency that’s typical within the organization, Terri Ford told me, “There are thirty-five million people with HIV, and only thirteen million have treatment. So we what are we going to do about that? Just let them die? That is not acceptable.”

By mid-December, Weinstein gave the book project the green light, concluding it was important to officially document AHF’s rise from a small group of concerned activists working in L.A. to a $1 billion nonprofit that serves patients around the globe. I would dig into the organization’s history, but I’d also follow AHF over the course of 2014—from January 1 to December 31—and write about what unfolded. AHF would pay me a salary and pick up the tab for my traveling expenses and an assistant, who would transcribe countless interviews. In terms of what I could research or write about, Weinstein placed no restrictions on me.

I had always thought highly of Weinstein, but now I was heading into the nitty-gritty. With all kinds of access granted to me for a year, I knew that the truth about AHF would reveal itself, and I had no intention of looking the other way if something scandalous popped up—too many people had put their lives into the care of AHF. And if that worst-case scenario took place, I wondered if Weinstein would go back on his word about wanting an honest book. I was prepared to quit or be fired rather than betray AHF clients.

Whatever was going to play out, I was embarking on an uncharted, worldwide journey, and I had little idea what I was going to discover. I also had a hunch. It was possible, I thought after the preliminary research, that AHF’s story could be incredibly inspiring. Not just for people combating HIV/AIDS and living with the disease, but for anyone in any country who wants to challenge government and the status quo and change the world in some way. The AHF story, I thought, could be a kind of textbook for the world’s aspiring righteous rebels.