BY KAREN OCAMB | Michael Weinstein is an AIDS activist. Full stop. He exercises his activist muscle as the co-founder and president of Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the world’s largest AIDS organization with a budget of $1.3 billion to operate more than 320 treatment clinics in 36 countries, 46 outpatient healthcare clinics in 14 states and numerous other programs. Yet AHF’s work is often overshadowed by critics loudly challenging what they see as Weinstein’s controversial remarks, the most recent of which is his caution about the use of PrEP without condoms.
But Weinstein was a social justice troublemaker years before AIDS became the focus of his life. In the mid-1970s, Weinstein worked as a graphic designer by day but used his free time to zap rich A-gays like lawyer Sheldon Andelson, who seemed to support the gay community center as an act of haughty charity.
Then came AIDS. In 1986, when right wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche launched his Prop 64 initiative calling for mandatory HIV testing and quarantining HIV-positive people in camps, Weinstein and his best friend Chris Brownlie started the Stop AIDS Quarantine Committee. They distributed more than 60,000 fliers and organized over 4,000 demonstrators to march on La Rouche’s headquarters in Atwater Village, according to gay journalist Bruce Mirken. That march and the No on 64 campaign helped defeat the measure by a whopping 71% to 29%.
When Brownlie fell ill and spent three days on a gurney in a hospital hallway because no room was available, Weinstein pleaded with L.A. County Supervisor Ed Edelman for help. “Weinstein had grown from a youthful radical to an admirer of Sheldon Andelson’s expert politicking. Now, however, he realized that gay political circumstances had changed yet again. He saw clearly that ‘AIDS was so horrifying, and the treatment of AIDS patients was so horrifying, that rubbing elbows wasn’t going to cut it,’” Weinstein told Stuart Timmons for the book Gay L.A.
That prompted Weinstein, Brownlie, Brownlie’s partner Phill Wilson and Mary Adair to found the AIDS Hospice Foundation in 1988 to help people with AIDS who were dying in the streets. Brownlie died in the hospice a year later at age 39. In 1990, Weinstein changed the name to AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which served as a spring board for ACT UP/LA and other AIDS activists to protest drug companies’ high prices and against the County for better treatment at County USC and the outpatient clinic, 5P21.
Over the years, Weinstein became more professional while aggressively courting and threatening elected officials, becoming highly litigious (winning most lawsuits), and continuing to push the politically-acceptable envelop. On May 31, Weinstein called on the FDA and Congress to investigate Gilead Sciences for what AHF alleges in a lawsuit was drug patent manipulation of their HIV medication, tenofovir. Some longtime AIDS activists have set aside their searing disdain for Weinstein and applauded this action.
“If I had one wish it would be that we, as a community – if in fact we are one – would put more energy into fighting our enemies than trashing each other,” Weinstein said in an interview. “However, I am not sure I will live that long.”