Panel crafts blunt AIDS warning in open letter to gays

More than three years have passed since health officials began seeing signs of waning caution among many gay men about the AIDS virus. Rates for sexually transmitted diseases have increased in that group; surveys show risky sex is more acceptable.

King County health authorities issued public warnings. They held a "summit" to discuss the problem. They formed a task force to study it. But few voices from gay community leaders have been heard.

Yesterday, the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS decided to raise that voice in a blunt, open letter to the gay community. It will be published around Gay Pride Week, June 23 through 30.

"It's time to take responsibility again," the letter says in part. "We were in the same position 20 years ago. Gay men took to the streets and demanded change and responsibility from each other. And it worked. Gay men changed their behaviors.

"Don't put at risk all that has been accomplished. Don't fret away what many of our brothers have died for ... Until there is a cure, there is only us!"

The council, which is appointed by the governor, hopes to place the letter in gay newspapers across the state.

It is signed by "all members" of the council to signal that the 21-member panel comprises both gay and straight people. It signals, the group decided after lengthy discussion, that gay men on the council are speaking to the gay community with full support from the rest of the members.

"The letter is saying, 'How about taking pride in yourself?' " said Tim Hillard, its principal author.

The council expects a negative reaction from some gays. People don't like being told how to live their lives, and the council isn't made up only of gay men, said Councilman Karl Swenson, who helped write the letter.

"We're saying you can enjoy sex, but you have a responsibility not only to yourself, but to your partners to remember that HIV plays a role in your decision making," he said.

Experts say the resurgence of unsafe behavior stems in part from the fact that new medications are keeping many HIV patients healthy for many years. Gaunt, sick AIDS patients are no longer common sights in gay communities.

Fear of the disease has decreased.

The disease, however, has killed some of the gay leaders of past years. And few new leaders have emerged to warn of the risks of AIDS. In a society that generally represses talk of sexuality, it is uncomfortable to speak out, said Swenson.

Health officials say HIV infections probably are increasing in the state.

A reporting system for the infections is too new to show that clearly. But there is plenty of evidence from cases of gay men with sexually transmitted diseases to indicate unsafe sexual practices.

In King County, for example, the syphilis rate continues at about 60 cases a year, about quadruple the rate five years ago. Gonorrhea cases number about 160 cases a year, and chlamydia infects about 150 annually — both more than double previous rates.

In addition, a recent anonymous survey of 1,000 gay men at high risk for HIV was conducted by Public Health — Seattle & King County. Called "Sleepless in Seattle," it showed that many — both infected and uninfected — have unprotected sex, make anonymous contacts at bath houses, have a sexually transmitted disease and use drugs that decrease inhibition.

The council's letter picks apart what it calls common "excuses" for being unsafe:

• With new HIV medications, the disease is manageable is one excuse. But the letter notes that the medications have harsh side effects. "And how long you live," it says, "is anyone's guess. Medicines are failing, drug resistance is emerging, and AIDS deaths are on the rise again."

• Having sex with young men eliminates risk: But the letter says one in four new infections nationwide is in someone younger than 25 and "every potential partner is a risk."

• Taking drugs destroys intentions to be safe: It's not easy to stay safe and sober, the letter says. "But safe sex should be just as much a part of your Friday night plans as figuring out what jeans look best on you."

• Gay people don't have full civil rights, and sexual freedom is what gays do have: "Sorry, but two wrongs don't make a right. Unless we protect ourselves, we won't live long enough to establish true equality."

The council's executive committee will give final approval to the letter later this month, when a few editing changes are made.

In addition, the council decided to write a separate letter to gay men of color and place it in newspapers that circulate in minority communities. It will focus in part on the fact that they have been disproportionately affected by the disease, especially African Americans.

"It will talk about the importance of taking control of our own health," said David Lee, a council member who volunteered to write the letter.

Warren King can be reached at 206-464-2247 or