California Forum

Mariel Garza: Fight over condom bill far from over

A bill requiring condom use in adult film production stalled in a state Senate committee last week and is probably dust for this legislative season. Don’t think the issue is dead, however. Not when Michael Weinstein is involved.

Weinstein, the pugnacious leader of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, doesn’t give up easily.

On Thursday, after news of the bill’s apparent demise, Weinstein noted that the legislation had made significant progress. Last year, it never got out of committee; this year, it passed in the full Assembly.

“It’s not going to discourage us,” he told me. “It took a very long time to get needle exchange in California. Almost 20 years.”

Fighting against HIV and AIDS is a long game for Weinstein – and the condom battle, with just five years in, is still in the early stages.

Weinstein is the president and founder of the powerful health advocacy group AHF, a multimillion-dollar agency with more than 200 clinics worldwide. It took in more than $188 million in grants, donations and government contracts in 2012, such as the one to provide services to people living with HIV in Los Angeles County. When Weinstein speaks about AIDS and HIV policy, world leaders listen.

Privately, though, people call Weinstein a bully, arrogant and other unkind names – no one wants a public fight with him.

I can see why. He has the money, the influence and the sheer relentlessness to win.

Since Weinstein and AHF launched a campaign to force the state’s $6 billion porn industry to use condoms in production, he’s won some big battles. Cal-OSHA started work on a condom rule for adult film performers, though it is still slogging through the process after four years.

The biggest win – a voter-approved measure in Los Angeles County in 2012 requiring adult film performers to use condoms – is the model for the statewide condom legislation.

And this summer Weinstein persuaded the Los Angeles City Council to start a city health commission, after he had tried and failed to get a measure on the ballot. A commission is the first step to getting the city to start a public health department and therefore undermine the L.A. County Department of Public Health, with which Weinstein has been feuding for years. The latest beef is that the county is choosing not to enforce the condom law.

What exactly Weinstein wins with the condom fight is not clear. HIV is not a huge issue in adult film production. According to the industry association, there hasn’t been one proven case of on-set transmission in 10 years.

That’s because the industry, and adult film performers, have been policing themselves with regular testing. Understandably, they don’t want to be infected. Porn actors are tested every two weeks, and when one is found to be HIV-positive, production is shut down until the infection is traced.

So a condom rule might be little more than a symbolic victory, though it could do real damage to an industry that, while somewhat embarrassing to Californians, brings in billions of dollars to the state.

In the San Fernando Valley, the historic home of porn production, neighborhoods are filled with regular people who work in the industry – lighting experts, hair and makeup, set designers, camera operators, among other jobs. If adult filming goes away, so do those jobs. It’s the reason the San Fernando Valley’s main business group is opposing the statewide ban.

After the condom rule passed, permits for adult film productions dropped by 90 percent, the Los Angeles Times reported. Porn producers had threatened to leave the county and even the state. But what many think has happened instead is that the crackdown on condoms has driven the industry underground to avoid enforcement.

That’s bad for government revenue and worse for the safety of porn performers, said Mike Stabile, a spokesman for the Free Speech Coalition, an association lobbying for the adult film industry.

Underground productions mean less safe working conditions all around, Stabile said.

Weinstein couldn’t quite explain to me how a statewide condom law would rectify that.

Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, who carried the failed bill, AB 1576, says he’ll continue to push it. Hall said he signed on to the bill because he saw condoms as a rights issue for working people whom no one wants to stand up for. He likened it to other great civil rights struggles.

“Black people weren’t freed overnight,” Hall said in an interview, “It took a process. Anytime you want to give people a voice, it’s a fight.”

Hall is a curious choice for this legislation, as his L.A. County district is overwhelmingly low-income, African American and Latino. It’s hard to imagine protective gear for adult film performers is a priority for his constituents.

And on another public health issue – one with a proven record of vast death and disease – he doesn’t have a great track record.

Hall is favored by Big Tobacco, which has contributed $35,700 to his campaign since 2009. Important statewide tobacco restriction bills have died in his committees, and he was pivotal in weakening a bill this session banning e-cigarette use in public places. The result was legislation so bad that even anti-tobacco advocates opposed it.

Weinstein said he didn’t know about Hall’s connection to Big Tobacco, but he didn’t seem to care. It’s irrelevant, Weinstein said, because “76 percent of the people in his district” voted for the condom rule.

In any case, though adult film advocates might have been relieved at last week’s reprieve, they must know this is far from over even if a statewide condom rule does eventually pass.

As AHF spokesman Ged Kenslea told me: “The industry threatened to move out of state. We will follow them.”

If history is any indication, I have no doubt Weinstein and AHF will do just that.