On a recent visit to West Hollywood's City Hall, Karla Vassy picked up what she thought was a book of matches from the busy front counter. To her surprise, the little packet turned out to contain not matches, but a free safe-sex kit designed to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Vassy, 21, said she was not bothered by the contents--a bright red condom and a tube of lubricant. She did, however, take exception to the accompanying instructions, which described how to use the condoms in four-letter words and other street language.
"It's important to promote safe sex, but when I opened the little booklet and found it was described in such vulgar language, I couldn't believe it," she said. "That is not the kind of language I think the city should be involved in. I understand that we have a large gay community, but it's not all gay and it's not all street people. There are other people who live here, too."
Vassy was but one of half a dozen West Hollywood residents who raised questions at Monday's City Council meeting about the city's funding and distribution of the safe-sex kits. At the meeting, the council approved more than $2 million in funding for social service agencies, including about $600,000 earmarked for agencies providing services for people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Among the agencies receiving funds were two that distribute thousands of the safe-sex kits.
City officials said they have substituted a kit with a tamer brochure for distribution at the City Hall counter, but they defended the kits with the more explicit brochure as an attempt to communicate with a population that may not understand more clinically worded instructions on how to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus.
"We are not talking about college-educated people, many have minimal education," Mayor John Heilman said. "If it takes graphic or blunt language to get the message out, then so be it. It offends me that so many people are dying from AIDS."
Councilman Sal Guarriello said he supported the concept of distributing condoms in the community but said he thought City Hall was an inappropriate place to be passing out such a crudely worded brochure.
"The language just offends me and a lot of other people," he said.
Among the defenders of the kit distribution program was Michael Reynolds, a spokesman for West Hollywood Cares, an AIDS education program that distributes 50,000 condoms a year in the city's gay bars and other businesses.
"Different people need different messages," he said.
A ready supply of free condoms distributed by West Hollywood Cares are kept in a closed box on the front counter in the City Hall. Each packet, carrying the label "For the Man in You," contains two condoms and two tubes of lubricant and instructions in blunt but not vulgar English on how to use a condom. The brochure also cautions against a variety of unsafe sex practices.
Reynolds said his group recently stopped distributing kits with the more explicit brochure because it hoped to "reach a greater cross section of people."
The Core Program, another AIDS education program funded by the city, distributes the kit with the more graphic, illustrated brochure. The instructions use street language to describe having sex "with a rubber." The package also includes two condoms wrapped in gold foil--looking something like an after-dinner mint--and two tubes of lubricant.
"It's designed for men with limited reading skills," said Ralph Mayo, coordinator of Core. "We hand these to (male prostitutes) on the street. Many of them do not know how to use a condom. If you talk about anal intercourse, it doesn't mean anything to them."
A critic of the program, resident Stanley Lothridge, said the council should not be spending money to provide condom kits to street hustlers.
"Here you have the City Council funding these groups to provide education, and the residents can't get the money for the police that are needed to kick them out," he said.
Lothridge also read portions of the offending instructions during the televised council session, a move that angered some on the council.
Councilman Paul Koretz said he, too, felt the language was harsh but meant for a very specific audience.
"I wasn't the one stupid enough to put it on the public airways," he snapped.
Jodi Curlee, the city's social service administrator, emphasized that the purpose of the program was to save lives.
"People offended by the material don't need to read it," she said.