By John Sanchez

For the last decade the Reimer Foundation has been as much of a fixture in gay bars on the north side as disco music and shot specials. Since 1987 the organization has distributed more than 3.5 million condoms free of charge from plastic fishbowls placed in bars, adult bookstores, and bathhouses. Most of these condoms were provided by the Chicago Department of Health, which supported the foundation’s efforts as part of a citywide strategy to battle the AIDS epidemic. But a change in city policy this year has drastically reduced the number of condoms available to the Reimer Foundation, a move that, according to foundation director Del Barrett, may jeopardize the public health.

Barrett first became active in the fight against AIDS after the 1984 death of his friend and onetime companion Bradley Scott Reimer. “I kind of quit the rat race and didn’t know what to do with myself,” he recalls, “and so I decided to dedicate a year or two of my life in AIDS prevention, thinking that by a year or two it would be under control.” Before the Reimer Foundation was formed, Barrett volunteered with the now-defunct Strike Against AIDS, a group that raised funds through bowling tournaments, and he served as the volunteer coordinator for the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic. As new organizations emerged addressing various aspects of the crisis, prevention remained the paramount issue to Barrett. “Housing and feeding and research and counseling are great, but we wouldn’t need to focus our money and energy and everything on that if we had prevention to begin with.”

According to Barrett, shortly after the Reimer Foundation began operations, it entered into a relationship with the city, which gave the group close to $25,000 a year to cover the cost of brochures, posters, ads, and operating expenses in addition to supplying 30,000 condoms a month. Last year the city reduced its annual subsidy to $3,600, or $300 a month, and the number of condoms was cut to 24,000 a month, an amount that Barrett complains did not meet demand. Then, as of April 1 this year, the city dropped its financial assistance to the Reimer Foundation and reduced the number of condoms it provided to 5,000 per month. “At one time we were supplying condoms to 35 locations,” Barrett says. “I know of five bars on Halsted alone that each go through 1,000 condoms a month.”

Gay-identified organizations have historically led the way in HIV prevention efforts, and Barrett worries their successes may have created a false impression that they’ve found a way to manage the crisis. “I think the feeling is that because the gay community is doing so well–and the statistics show [its rate of new infections is] way below what was expected–then ‘Hey, no problem. We’ll focus on new areas.'”

But according to Lydia Watts, director of HIV prevention programs at the Chicago Department of Public Health, geography is a key factor in the city’s new condom distribution plan. Noting that the Reimer Foundation almost exclusively serves the north side, she says, “They had 280,000 condoms [per year] to saturate in one community, when in fact we had other communities that were getting zero from us.” (The foundation had recruited the community group Brother to Brother to distribute condoms in three to five south-side bars, but those places have been dropped from the Reimer Foundation’s distribution program since the recent cutbacks.) The health department’s “AIDS Surveillance Report” for the fourth quarter of 1996 found continuing high rates of infection in such north-side communities as Uptown, Edgewater, and Lakeview, but “elevated” rates were emerging on the south and west sides. Watts says the 19,000 condoms taken away from Reimer’s monthly allowance will now be diverted to venues frequented by gays on the south and west sides as well as to some places previously serviced by the foundation.

Robert Rybicki, assistant commissioner for HIV/AIDS public policy and programs, says the city wants to enlist groups that also do outreach work, with volunteers handing out AIDS and HIV information as well as condoms. “It’s not just putting condoms on the counter,” he says. Outreach workers in bars can provide instruction in proper condom use, assess individuals’ risk factors, and refer people to other programs.

Barrett acknowledges the importance of outreach work, but he’s critical of it as a method of condom distribution. “You’re only in that bar once or twice a week,” he says. “What about people who come in after you’re gone?” He thinks the Reimer Foundation’s bowls are a better solution because they provide a supply of condoms throughout a venue’s business hours and people will only take a condom if they need one. He recalls a recent night when outreach workers were handing out condoms to every patron who entered the north-side bar Circuit. “You’re wasting them giving them to people who don’t want them,” he says. “They were on the floor; they were all over.”

The foundation–run out of Barrett’s Rogers Park condo by a core of three volunteers and one part-time paid assistant–is now operating month-to-month and rationing condoms. Other activities have been suspended. With its diminished supply of condoms, bathhouses are no longer on the Reimer route. “They charge entrance at their door, and hopefully then they can afford to give out condoms,” Barrett says. “The same with bookstores. We knocked off those bars and establishments which average 250 condoms or less a month. Those bars that go through 1,000, we bumped off. We’re talking about bars which are extremely popular.” Instead of receiving condoms from Reimer for free as in the past, the smallest and largest bars are now being encouraged to buy them from the foundation at about ten cents apiece.

While Barrett and the foundation’s other board members try to get the city to reconsider the new policy, they’re also seeking other sources of support. State health officials have indicated they may have surplus funds available later this year, and it’s possible some would be given to the city and then passed along to the foundation. Reimer has always sought private donations from the gay community, but recent fund-raising efforts have not been encouraging. “We have donation cans in the bars, but we barely get $100 a month out of those,” Barrett says. A booth at International Mr. Leather over Memorial Day weekend grossed only $7. A series of tag nights, where donations are solicited as patrons enter bars, will be held in June.

But what Barrett fears most about the future is the possibility that new infections will result from his organization’s lack of free condoms. “At four in the morning there’s going to be somebody in Little Jim’s or some other place who’s going to take somebody home with him and not be able to have a condom and there’s going to be a relapse,” he says. “They’re going to say, ‘Oh, we made a mistake,’ and we’re going to be right back to what we were doing before.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Del Barrett photo by J.B. Spector.