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Bartenders to Serve Up AIDS Data : Volunteer for State Program to Educate Gays on Disease

Times Staff Writer

Like most bartenders, James Bond is a lot of things to his customers--a shoulder to cry on, a friend to laugh with, someone to listen to complaints about the Giants’ dismal season.

Now he is one thing more to the men who patronize the El Rio Bar. He is their sex adviser.

Bond, along with more than 100 other workers in this city’s gay bars, has volunteered for a new state-funded program to help educate homosexuals about the best way to have what is called “safe sex” for gays--and avoid the deadly disease AIDS.

The program is the first in a series planned by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to add education to the arsenal now aimed at acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the fatal viral affliction that cripples the body’s immune system.

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“We’ve been doing lots of education over the last two years, but we haven’t reached everyone,” Les Pappas of the AIDS Foundation said. “But we really need to motivate people to learn more . . . and deal with it (AIDS) in an informed way.”

He said the program, which he calls Bartenders Against AIDS, is the “first real, organized, targeted effort” by the state to directly educate the public about the disease.

AIDS is a particular problem in the San Francisco Bay Area because homosexual men are the most frequent AIDS victims, and this area has one of the nation’s largest gay communities.

Worry over AIDS has virtually killed the region’s once-thriving trade in public bathhouses, where some gays engaged in repeated sexual encounters with a great many anonymous partners.

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Although such high-risk practices have apparently been curtailed, the disease remains unchecked. According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, through mid-May, 1,166 people in San Francisco alone were diagnosed with AIDS; 561 had died. And the numbers are growing.

Pappas said the continued spread of the disease can be blamed in part on public ignorance.

“Everybody thinks they know everything about AIDS because they’ve heard the word and seen it in the media,” Pappas said. “But when you probe below the surface, you find out they really don’t know that much about what it is, how it is spread and how to prevent it.”

Faced with the problem, the state funded an education program to teach homosexuals and other high-risk people about the disease and about how it is--and is not--transmitted.

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The AIDS Foundation then compiled an information packet containing a variety of documents, from scholarly articles reprinted from medical journals to a list of sexual do’s and don’ts written in blunt street vernacular.

The packets are handed out to people working the city’s 120 or so gay bars, and are accompanied by a two-hour class on the disease.

Some bartenders also have agreed to distribute “safe sex” cards that list sex acts believed to promote the spread of AIDS; the cards also come complete with condoms, which are thought to help control the spread of the disease.

“Bartenders are key people in the community, especially in the gay community,” Pappas explained. “Bars were some of the first places we congregated, and they are still an important part of the community.”

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Recognized by Bartenders

In addition, Pappas added, bars tend to attract the most sexually active people, and bartenders recognize them and can counsel them.

“He can correct misconceptions,” Pappas said. “If, for example, he hears two guys talking about being afraid of going to someone’s house for dinner (because that person has AIDS), he can say, ‘That’s ridiculous. It is not transmitted by food. I just had this course, and I learned.’ ”

In addition to “safe sex” tips and current scientific beliefs about non-sexual transmission, the bartenders are told the specific symptoms of the disease, statistics on the number of cases and deaths and the thoughts of people stricken by AIDS.

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Bartenders also are equipped with educational brochures and the telephone number of the AIDS hot line, which can answer specific queries from callers.

Later, Pappas said, the educational program may include instructional videotapes and could be expanded to include so-called “straight” bars.

For now though, Pappas said, program participants will have a difficult enough time convincing gays of the need to learn more about AIDS and follow the advice of physicians.

“We’re asking people to change sexual habits they’ve had for many years,” Pappas said. “It’s a very personal, intimate issue.

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“Our goal is to get everyone to change in the same direction. How much each individual will do, of course, is up to him.”


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