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Photographs by Stephen Laufer

Metro Santa Cruz Bars & Clubs 2003

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Undercover Clubbers

In the bars! On the beaches! In the bushes! The safe-sex crusaders of equinox will go anywhere to protect local scenesters... and we do mean anywhere.

By Mike Connor

It's 11pm on a Wednesday night at the Dakota. DJ AD is spinning a sexy mix of hip-hop, pepping things up with the occasional Madonna/B-52's injection. Ladies' night is in full swing, and out on the dance floor, Equinox outreach coordinator Aaron Martin is getting' down with his bad self--er, I mean, he's doing "research." It's all part of the plan to reduce the spread of HIV called "bar outreach." It's a beautiful synthesis of work and play for outreach workers at Equinox--a branch of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project specifically targeting men who have sex with men (MSM). Sure, they toil away in the office by day, working to connect with MSMs throughout the county, developing programs, discussion groups and social events, and providing free and anonymous HIV testing. But fliers and word of mouth will only connect you with so many people. At some point you just got to get out there and work it, girl.

"It's exciting--with the bar outreach, we're working on getting more people into [Equinox] and getting our name out into the community," says Martin. "We're getting more people networked, and hopefully reducing the spread of HIV in the community. And for me personally, the main part of being [in the bars] is community building, because I feel that if people have more solid support networks, they'll be more likely to take care of themselves."

Partyin' Angels Left to Right: Equinox staffers Aaron Martin, James Russell and volunteer Scap Dewey use their nightclubbing powers for good.

Secret Agent MSMs

Equinox manager Ean O'Reilly says that bar outreach has been happening on and off for years at the Blue Lagoon, where community health outreach workers (CHOWs) would carry platters of free condoms and lube like old-fashioned cigarette vendors, dispensing information about safer sex along with the sex supplies. O'Reilly and Martin also do outreach in what they call "public sex environments." Certain beaches along the coast are known as hookup spots for gay men, who aren't going to find any condom vending machines out in the bushes where they're getting together. That's where O'Reilly and Martin come in.

"We go up north to do beach outreach where people hook up, handing out condoms and lube," says Martin. "I usually do outreach in the bush area where people are making contacts to have sex."

Meanwhile, O'Reilly combs the beach itself, not only offering lube and condoms, but also engaging people in one-on-one conversations about risks and methods of harm reduction.

"The model we use is called 'harm reduction,'" explains O'Reilly, "and that's based on meeting someone where they're at, no matter what the setting is. We're coming from a neutral, nonjudgmental space, so that the person may feel more comfortable opening up and sharing. Because I think the old style of counseling would be trying to draw things out of people, and the language might be filled with shame and judgments, which is really going to make them close up more and not talk about this with anyone. We don't live in a black and white world--people are having sex and doing drugs. This is about informing them, so that hopefully they, in turn, can make a more informed choice."

As their outreach expands, Equinox offers monthly trainings for people interested in volunteering as CHOWs. Equinox outreach worker James Russell says he's working to organize "gorilla gay bars," wherein a party of gay people show up at a nongay bar all together, with the intent of bridging a cultural divide by integrating gay and straight people in a social setting.

Martin, on the other hand, is spearheading an entirely new form of outreach based on the Popular Opinion Leader (POL) model, a technique which involves enlisting the "popular people" at bars to bring up safe sex options with their peers during the course of natural conversation. To this end, CHOWs like Martin and Russell are scoping out the bars--only 15 of which in Santa Cruz County even offer condoms--to find potential collaborators, and, more importantly, to make their presence known in the community.

Or, as Equinox volunteer Dewy says, "What better way to educate your community than to be out in it?"

To learn more about Equinox programs and volunteer opportunities, call Ean or Aaron at 831.457.1441, visit www.scapsite.org/html/ equinox.html or visit their offices at 113 Cooper St. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Fridays 2-6pm.

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From the October 22-29, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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