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Craig Seymour sits on a picnic bench in the farthest corner of Mr. P’s, a popular Dupont Circle gay bar. He gazes at the male strippers, who are strutting their stuff dressed in G-strings and sweat socks laced with dollar bills. The intense erotic display has the entire bar practically licking its lips in lust.
Seymour, though, hasn’t come for the show. He clutches a stack of fliers announcing an upcoming meeting of his “Professional’s Club,” a group therapy gig for sex workers. The club is one element of the gay men’s outreach program Seymour is running for the Whitman-Walker AIDS clinic. Although the program preaches safe sex for all, Seymour has targeted male prostitutes, an isolated and anonymous group that aggressively transmits the AIDS virus.
As the show at Mr. P’s goes on, Seymour explains why spreading the word on safe sex is not like distributing campaign lit. “I just won’t go up to someone and let him know [about the] Professional’s Club meeting,” he explains. “It’s completely rude.” He also doesn’t give out the condom packets or “trick kits” to dancers because they’re too bulky to fit in the dancers’ socks.
After 10 minutes in the bar, Seymour has collected two shifty maybes and one outright rejection in his attempts to boost attendance at the next Professional’s Club meeting. Meanwhile, Whitman-Walker staffer Larry Villegas reports that he has passed out about 90 condoms to patrons. On his way out, Seymour weaves through the crowd in duck-and-cover mode, as if he’s ashamed of his tiny Professional’s Club pamphlets. Outside, he climbs into his red 1995 Dodge Neon and heads out to a strip joint in Southeast, the next stop on his mission to provide emotional, touchy-feely support for sex workers.
After more than a decade in the public consciousness, AIDS has become big business for Whitman-Walker. With an annual budget of more than $15 million, the clinic has distinguished itself in testing and treating District residents at risk of HIV infection. But the big bucks and extensive infrastructure haven’t helped the clinic’s outreach workers connect with street hustlers.
Neal Carnes, Seymour’s predecessor, says he quit trying to track down male prostitutes after one failed attempt. Carnes placed surveys for escorts in MW, the Washington Blade, and the Washington City Paper but received only two responses.
With little hope of tracking down prostitutes, Carnes decided to focus on the dance clubs and men who use designer drugs like crystal meth and Special K. With a budget of $8,500, he didn’t go after IV drug users, he didn’t pass out needles, and his higher-ups didn’t pay much attention. “I don’t think [Whitman-Walker] cared,” he says.
The clinic, says Carnes, was concerned only that he meet his condom-distribution quotanot that he track down prostitutes. “I think they give prevention the cold shoulder,” Carnes says of Whitman-Walker. “Prevention was at its convenience and not at its crux. I’ve said all along that if Whitman-Walker wants the sympathy vote, it’s in people who are sick. That’s the reality of the world. When people say gay men should know what to do, that detracts from the sympathy vote. The same goes for drug users and prostitutes.”
Local AIDS activists second Carnes’ assessment. “I’ve watched this epidemic since the beginning, and I have been appalled by the lack of HIV prevention that targets gay men, bisexual men, and sex workers,” says Wayne Turner, an organizer with ACT UP Washington.
Seymour says the clinic’s institutional mind-set dogs him every day. “Do you watch The X-Files?” he asks. “It’s a bit like that. There are forces against you. I’m not about to get a lot of people to help me.” A former stripper, Seymour got the job because of his experience in the trade and because he is currently working on a Ph.D. examining the sex trade.
The training has come in handy. Seymour started out by redesigning the clinic’s “trick kits”packages that contain condoms, lubricant, and safe-sex instructionsspecially for sex workers. The next step was to launch the Professional’s Club. The original advertisement for the group was clear and inoffensive, stating, “Come together with other professional guys to talk about work issues, the law, safer-sex techniques, health care, or whatever.”
Some members of the public, however, read something sinister between the lines and complained to the clinic, which ordered Seymour to change the ad. “I wanted to put in the ad that we were going to talk about techniques of negotiating safe sex, and there was a concern that we were telling them how to negotiate money with clients,” says Seymour, noting that the ad’s reference to the law invited interpretation. “I think the ad was so watered down that…people thought it was a sex club.”
Despite the furor over the club’s ad, Seymour received even less support for another idea: a fanzine to be written by and for sex workers. It would be a more personal way of distributing safe-sex info and hustler survival tips. It could also foster a feeling of community among workers, who usually work the streets alone or from the closet. The ‘zine wasn’t rejected, but Seymour’s co-workers instead suggested he do a departmental newsletter. Seymour got the hint and decided to work with another outreach organization, Brother, Help Thyself, to produce the still unpublished ‘zine.
“We have more control of our organization. We don’t have the government dictating what we can and cannot do,” explains Paul Bohli, president of Brother, Help Thyself. “Whitman-Walker is not in a position to do what they would like to do. Craig saw the need and contacted Brother, Help Thyself to do it, because we can be more on the edge, so to speak. It’s not in their best interest to be [on the edge].”
Whatever Seymour’s limitations, he searches for male prostitutes two to four times a week, frequenting strip clubs, sex clubs, and bars that cater to hustlers. Although tracking down sex workers is not an exact science, it seems to be working for Seymour. The Professional’s Club’s first meeting attracted six workers, the next, 10. The club agreed to make the meetings twice a month instead of just once.
George (not his real name) could tell the Professional’s Club a thing or two. A sporadic hustler, George says the only reason he works the streets of Dupont Circle is to get some quick cash. Sitting in the Soho Cafe on P Street (also known as “Sohomo” among hustlers), George is taking a rest on a cold Wednesday night. Dressed in a brown jacket and brown knit cap, he’s still wearing his work badge from AT&T around his neck. He may be at rest, but as he sits and talks, he is constantly nodding to friends or potential clients.
“I’m just a brother who likes to get his rocks off,” he explains. “If I beat my dick or fuck someone in the pussy or someone in the ass, it’s all nothing but coming. I consider myself a dude trying to survive. If you don’t get money some way, you wind up in the street.”
He says he started hustling when he was about 13 and worked steadily through drug and alcohol problems and even a prison term. Now 46, George says he only hustles once every few months. “I’m about what you call a cool hustle,” he says. “I’m not in the life.”
He says hustling has turned into a pain in the ass. “The stick-up boys, the dope fiends, the freaks, the cops,” he goes on. “You might run into anybody down here.” The payoffs from hustling, George says, are meager: maybe $20 for a hand job and slightly more for more intimate services. He recalls his last job, just a few months ago, when he got only a free meal and some beer out of a tryst.
While George insists he’s trying to stay off the streets, he’s hardly looking to Whitman-Walker to show him the righteous life. “They can’t help me. I got to want to get out. It’s in the heart. You have to want to clean the heart out. Whitman-Walker ain’t no surgeon,” says George. “All the money, all the counseling, all the equipment won’t make you quit.”
Another sex worker says Whitman-Walker has enough trouble handing out condoms, let alone weaning sex workers from their unsafe pursuits. “It’s weird; sometimes it seems like twice a month [they hand out condoms], and then other times you won’t see them again for months,” says the man, a dancer at La Cage. “They really don’t say anything except, ‘Here are some condoms!’”
He adds that where he works the bar already provides condoms and lube. He also complains that when he caught gonorrhea, the clinic gave him the wrong medication. And just waiting in the Whitman-Walker lobby was a test of self-esteem. “There were a bunch of gossipy, bitchy queens” working the front desk, he says.
So the dancer has little interest in Seymour’s newfangled sex-workers club. “I think people would be too embarrassed to talk about it,” he says. “Maybe it would feel like they were being chastisedlike it’s all your fault.”
Hustlers like George and the La Cage dancer stay away from Whitman-Walker because they don’t commune with the affluent gay community that hovers around Dupont Circle. These workers shun the standard 17th Street gay bars and coffee shops.
But a gay escort who attended one of the Professional’s Club meetings dismisses the common criticisms of Whitman-Walker’s outreach efforts. At the club he can talk about his escort job without fear of rebuke. But he says that proves that Seymour’s focus on strippers misses the mark, because there is a line between dancing and turning tricks that many do not cross. He admits that Seymour is up against some significant barriers in reaching sex workers.
“It’s hard to convince them to come,” says the escort, 32. “So much of the hustling is about power. So much of the young guys think their shit don’t stink until they bottom out.”
And even if the studs are led to water, nobody, including Seymour, can make them drink. Coming to grips with “the life,” he says, is up to the sex workers themselves.CP