CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There was a time, not so long ago, that HIV/AIDS educators and others could be found handing out free condoms and offering safer-sex tips at gay clubs on a pretty regular basis. Nightclub owners, too, often provided free condoms available in glass jars at the bar’s end.
Those times, though, are mostly gone, but some Charlotteans want to change that.
Charlotte Pocket Rocket Guide, a local gay nightlife magazine, and the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network are working with the Mecklenburg County Department of Health to put the once ubiquitous, free condoms back in bars, where those in need of safer-sex resources can find them easily and quickly.
Lack of access noted
Tommy Feldman, Pocket Rocket‘s editor, says the idea for the new condom campaign, the “Protect Your Rocket Project,” came to him after friends raised concerns.
“Some friends of mine who found out they were HIV-positive were frustrated that the bars didn’t provide any protection or condoms or anything,” says Feldman. “When it’s 2 a.m. in the morning and bars are letting out, the last thing that could be on your mind is playing it safe and people end up taking risks.”
Feldman’s husband, Shane Windmeyer, who performs drag for charity causes, says he, too, has seen the need. Performing at a local gay club recently, Windmeyer was approached by a young man who said he needed a condom.
“‘Do you know where I can find a condom,’ he asked,” says Windmeyer. “He said he was ready to leave the bar and would like a condom but couldn’t find one. That concerned me. Here you have someone trying to be responsible and just not having access when they needed it.”
The condom distribution project will launch with the October issue of Feldman’s magazine, just days after Friday’s National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. As he delivers the publication across the city, about a dozen local gay bars and night clubs will also get a free delivery of condoms.
Proven prevention strategy
Hannah Stutts, a grant coordinator at the county health department, says condom distribution is a proven strategy for prevention.
“It’s always been a part of what the health department does,” says Stutts, who also coordinates free weekly HIV testing at the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte. “It has an impact, having condoms accessible for free. Sometimes buying a condom isn’t an option because they can’t afford it or it’s embarrassing.”
And, now, the need for prevention couldn’t be greater. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that gay and bisexual men account for half of all Americans living with HIV and nearly two-thirds of new infections. Young men who have sex with men, and particularly young men of color, are at even higher risks.
“In Charlotte, we need to do a better job of creating awareness around sex-positivity, talking about sex, how to practice safer-sex and being responsible in your dating,” says Windmeyer. “I don’t think we have enough services that provide that. Most young people are finding dating through social networking or hook-up sites. That’s not necessarily healthy, positive relationships.”
Windmeyer hopes that even amid the lack of in-depth discussion and awareness, having the condoms in bars will at least remind people to be more responsible.
Creating ongoing awareness
Nathan Smith, RAIN’s director of development and marketing, says it was a “no-brainer” when Feldman approached his group with the idea for the project, which will put prevention messages front-and-center when people sometimes need to hear them the most.
“When you meet somebody, whether it’s Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now, you’ll see [the free condoms] on your way out and it will remind you to be safe,” he says. “Even if you already have condoms at home, you’ll see it and it will trigger those safer-sex messages you’ve always heard.”
Smith says he hopes the new project will help build more sustainable and ongoing awareness. Particularly, he and Stutts hopes it opens the door for people to access more resources.
“We’re just trying to get the community to know that the health department, RAIN and Pocket Rocket are here to support people,” says Stutts. “We want people to know safety is available and maybe people will begin asking where else can I get a condom and where is testing available.”
As Feldman delivers the free condoms, he’ll track how many he leaves and how many remain when he returns the next month. His delivery data will be shared with RAIN and the health department.
Feldman says he’s happy and excited he can help build awareness. His publication has always been fun and lighthearted, but he does it, he says, because he loves the community.
“This is an extension of that,” he says. “We really do care about the people in this city and we want there to be options.”
— Learn more about Charlotte Pocket Rocket Guide at
pocketrocketguide.com/Charlotte.htm and RAIN at carolinarain.org. Free HIV and Syphilis testing is provided by the Mecklenburg County Health Department each Wednesday, 5-7 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte, 2508 N. Davidson St. For more information, visit lgbtcharlotte.org.