The House That Chuck Built

What nasty business is behind the biggest donation to the new gay and lesbian center?

When an estimated 7,000 people walk through the doors of San Francisco's new $15 million gay and lesbian community center during a weeklong opening gala next week, prominently displayed above the front door will be the name Charles M. Holmes, the famous porn king whose adult video business has served up some of the steamiest and raunchiest gay sex films over the past 30 years. The estate of the famous Chuck Holmes, who died of AIDS complications in September 2000, gave $1 million for the center's completion, the largest individual donation ever to any gay community group in San Francisco.

Such a major donation earned Holmes' name over the door, which community center officials have defended by saying that Holmes, besides being a pornographer, was also a philanthropist who contributed to more than 20 HIV/AIDS organizations, not to mention political and social causes such as Emily's List, Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, and even the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

"It's not something the center did without thinking of the different concerns people might have," says center spokesman Jason Riggs. "Charles Holmes made his fortune from our community, and now he is giving his money back to it. His gift brings us closer to realizing the long-held dream of having a place in San Francisco that is a safe and welcoming environment for our community."

But the center may have a harder time explaining away this fact: Holmes' company, Falcon Studios, is still profiting from sales of "barebacking" videos that highlight anal sex without condoms -- even as the rate of HIV infections has begun to rise again now that safe-sex campaigns are being ignored by a younger generation of gay men who never experienced the scourge of AIDS.

Riggs defends the company, saying, "Falcon Studios is an industry leader in portraying safer sex." But a visit to Falcon's Web site shows that it also sells the unsafest of sex, advertising itself as the place to go for those "hard to find pre-condom videos."

John Rutherford, president of San Francisco-based Falcon Studios, says the barebacking videos he sells are "classics" that were filmed before anyone knew anything about HIV transmission and, therefore, are not subject to the safe-sex policies he mandates for current productions. "Those are for fantasy only," Rutherford says. "They are a favorite because people can watch and pretend they are back in the days when you didn't have to use condoms. There is a market for it, and we don't have to stop selling them."

The barebacking videos do not have any disclaimers that say they were filmed in an era before people died from AIDS or that say condoms should be used today. The videos are stamped with a date showing when they were filmed, which Rutherford says is enough of a qualifier since everyone should know AIDS was not an issue in the 1970s.

What about young men in their 20s today who are not practicing safe sex as much anymore, as recent Health Department surveys show, who may celebrate or emulate the retro image of the pre-condom videos? Could Falcon's videos send the wrong message or, worse, help influence behavior?

"That is an age-old argument about the media," Rutherford says. "You know, violence on TV and everything else. That's not my place to comment on."

What does the spokesman for the gay and lesbian community center have to say about the company of its namesake selling barebacking videos?

"I'm not going to comment on that," Riggs says.

Meanwhile, Back on the Porn Beat

Larry Flynt, the porn-publishing magnate and the founder of Hustler magazine, made headlines last week for using advertisements -- some of which ran in this very paper, no less -- of "barely legal" models to promote the high-profile opening of his Hustler Club, the new "Las Vegas-style" nightspot in North Beach. Rumors of protests and public outrage abounded, so on opening night, we were curious to see whether the King of Sleaze would live up to his reputation.

Upon arrival, the club seemed a far cry from some of the seedier environments depicted in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Sure, the 9,000-square-foot space, the former home of the Palladium and, most recently, the Millennium disco, is in a prime, suitably sleazy location, right next to the Lusty Lady. But the massive bouncers in black T-shirts and trousers looked warm and fuzzy, smiling and greeting the guests warmly.

Inside, the Hustler Honeys were sufficiently oiled and siliconed, clad in the usual thongs, fishnets, and plunging-neckline gowns. But the exotic dancers were no match for Flynt himself, who rolled out in his gold-plated wheelchair, looking quite robust, to greet his constituents during the pre-party press junket. For a supposedly controversial figure, the old guy had the room of "journalists" (many of whom seemed to have fairly suspect credentials) eating out of the palm of his hand. He even tossed out a few recycled soundbites, goading his usual targets -- the protesting feminists, a group he referred to as "a bunch of ugly women" -- with customary gusto: "Get a life," he said. "They're still pissed off they still have to sleep in the wet patch after 30 years." By the time he started calling for an "upscale operation that people will feel comfortable patronizing," most folks were flagging down the scantily clad servers for another free drink. "We want to get the business out of the gutter," Flynt said, and "add a little touch of class."

As the press party was winding down, the natives were getting restless outside, where "VIPs" were gathering for the opening. The crowd seemed excited, but the handful of protesters mulling about were a disappointment. One woman dispassionately dragged an obligatory sign accusing Flynt of child pornography and abuse. "Protesters are so boring," muttered another woman.

Anxious patrons lined up around the corner, regaled by a group of rowdy and very vocal anti-protesters dressed as priests and Catholic schoolgirls, who came to support the "outspoken champion throughout the ages." Pumping up the crowd with shouts of "T&A is A-OK" and "Two, four, six, eight, show me how you masturbate," the frisky "feminists for fornication" were the true crowd pleasers. When they held up signs that read "Support Bush," some of the folks in line cheered and clapped. Mahassa Oveyssi, an attractive 30-year-old brunette Web designer, had her own agenda: "I go to strip-club openings because there's always a lot of good-looking guys." But another woman, a 24-year-old named Elizabeth, seemed less motivated. "I had nothing better to do tonight," she said indifferently.

Once the guests filtered inside, the scene was lively but far from raunchy, despite the Herculean effort put out by "Amy, a 21-year-old psych major and demolitions expert," who galloped about onstage wearing little more than a pair of strategically placed pasties. We searched in vain for a glimpse of Willie Nelson -- one of the many celebrities, including Francis Ford Coppola, Mayor Willie Brown, Harry Denton, and Denise Hale, who were said to have been in attendance -- but sadly the only real outlaws we encountered were a crew of burly Hell's Angels, who mysteriously showed up with VIP invites that were given to them by "associates."

Back on the street, one of the anti-protester priests wandered alone, aimlessly, looking lost without his flock.

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