On late-night streets, he offers condoms and hope

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The shouts, honks and clatter of daytime Baltimore had subsided long ago, and all but the most die-hard bar-goers had headed home when Luis Villanueva got ready for work.

As on every Friday night, he was well equipped: a canvas sack stuffed with condoms, tennis shoes for long-distance walking and resolve fueled by compassion and hope.

But as always, he left his wallet and jewelry at home.

Mr. Villanueva understands that on his journey through the downtown shadows, what can be seen may not be what is. And he knows that late at night in the city, the bustle of daily business is replaced by action of a different sort.

As an outreach worker for the Health Education and Resource Organization (HERO), Mr. Villanueva, 32, has a mission: to pass the safer sex message to a segment of the population reviled by most.

"Prostitution's gone on forever, and it's not going to stop," he said. "The best we can do is try to make it healthier."

Mr. Villanueva concentrates his HIV-prevention efforts on male prostitutes, including transvestites. Baltimore's underworld of hustling includes whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, transvestites, children, the homeless, the employed, the destitute, the addicted, the high-priced and the dirt cheap.

The common thread of prostitution is desperation, said Kenn Hill-Holman, founder of BE MORE Maryland, an HIV-prevention organization that focuses on people of color.

"Very few people tell me, 'I love being a [prostitute]. I love it, I make thousands,' " he said. "Many say, 'The check ran out, and I have three kids and no money.' "

What buyers get depends on where they shop. From the Inner Harbor north on Gay, Calvert and Charles streets past North Avenue, and from Patterson Park west to Pennsylvania Avenue and beyond, the kind of sex available varies neighborhood to neighborhood.

High HIV peril

Called "sex workers" by public health officials, street hustlers are considered at "high, high, high" risk for transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, said Paul Pasternak, head of an outreach division at the state AIDS Administration.

In Baltimore, where 5,254 cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome have been reported since 1981, the state and city health departments support education programs targeting sex workers.

For many prostitutes, the risk of HIV infection is compounded because they are intravenous drug users or their partners are.

Frequently, even if prostitutes have gotten the safer sex message, their customers haven't. Often those who buy sex urge the prostitutes to disregard public health messages -- and on the streets, where selling is the name of the game, the prostitutes feel compelled to follow customers' requests.

"It's hard to say no when you need money," said Mr. Villanueva.

On a muggy September night, a dozen blocks north of the Inner Harbor, Mr. Villanueva strolled past crowded bars and dark rowhouses, past an espresso bar aglow with neon, past alleys filled with trash and ripe with the stench of urine.

Dressed in orange jeans and a yellow T-shirt, he is irrepressible -- nearly bounding down the pavement. To get his message across, he mixes a salesman's gift of gab, a therapist's listening powers and an irreverent sense of humor while making his pitch.

"Hey guy! Try these! Health package from HERO," he said, approaching four men on a street corner.

As he vied for the men's attention, "shoppers" circled. Cars passed, turned the corner, vanished, reappeared. A Lexus. A beat-up station wagon. A Taurus. An Oldsmobile with District of Columbia plates.

On this night, most of the drivers were older white men; most of the hustlers were younger blacks. "I see [the buyers] around here so often I start to know them," said Mr. Villanueva. "I see them in nice cars. They definitely have to have money or they wouldn't be buying sex."

The four men on the corner, all in their 20s, saw the cars, too.

One hustler, in baggy black shorts and a white muscle shirt, danced suggestively. He waved at the passing cars, sometimes knocking on the windows.

Three of the hustlers took Mr. Villanueva's condoms: "I know that's right," one said. The fourth declined. "Come on, don't tell me you're not going to need these sometime," Mr. Villanueva said, cajoling the man into taking the condoms.

Some of the men seem to believe they are invulnerable, Mr. Villanueva explained later. "They think, 'I'm working out, I look healthy, I'm not going to get AIDS.' "

An appeal to pride

One of Mr. Villanueva's tactics is to appeal to the masculine pride of those who deny what they're doing. "A man can't turn down condoms. He's too proud. See, they're out here, but some of them don't want to admit why," he said.

"I make a joke out of it."

Many hustlers wanted more than a handful of condoms. Some wanted to know where to get tested for HIV. Some just wanted to talk. Still others wanted desperately to be reassured that they don't have AIDS.

Mr. Villanueva remained imperturbable. If younger men say they don't know how to use a condom, he explains in detail.

But if they need someone to listen, he does that, too.

On another night, an older man whose clothes were worn and dirty began moaning aloud when Mr. Villanueva handed him condoms: The man had been tested for HIV at a health clinic, but he was afraid to pick up the results.

"Oooh. I got the test, but I don't want to know. What if I have AIDS? What if I have AIDS?"

"You need to get your results. If you've got [HIV], there are drugs out there that can prolong your life. You need to eat well. You need help," said Mr. Villanueva.

Mr. Villanueva urged the man to come to HERO the next day, but the man hasn't turned up yet.

Halfway through his rounds, Mr. Villanueva changed locations to contact transvestites. As he walked down a long, dark street lined with silent office buildings and restaurants about a dozen blocks from Harborplace, he talked about how he came to be an outreach worker here.

After all, the native Puerto Rican used to own a beauty salon in Harrisburg, Pa.

In the mid-1980s, however, members of his circle of friends began dying of AIDS. After two particularly trying years during which he nursed a friend in vain, Mr. Villanueva quit his job and returned to Puerto Rico.

"I just felt it was time to get involved," he said. "I closed my business and just said, 'I don't want to do hair anymore.' "

In 1991, in San Juan, Mr. Villanueva was hired as coordinator of an outreach program for HIV prevention. Contacting transvestites, he persuaded many of the hustlers to attend a series of eight health lectures funded by the federal government. The classes, now an annual event, included lessons on personal health, safer sex and hygiene. It's something he would like to do here.

Baltimore has no shortage of transvestite hustlers. Several blocks from City Hall, Mr. Villanueva spotted a person whose shadowy silhouette promised mystery and feminine beauty. She was tall and not thin, and her hips swayed as she moved.

As he approached, the headlights of a passing car bathed her in harsh light, and suddenly she wasn't as she first had seemed.

Paying for an 'illusion'

"The men who pick up the transvestites [deny being gay] but they pick up these women who are men. It's how they deal with their sexuality," said Mr. Villanueva. "They pay for illusion."

This woman was a man, and his dress was too tight, heels too high, bones too coarse.

Though his eyes were following the slowly moving car, he accepted Mr. Villanueva's offer of condoms. "Thanks, honey, I can always use more of these."

Transvestites, who often say they are females trapped in male bodies, struggle to look like women. Many inject themselves with hormones that, in men, can cause breasts to form and facial hair to disappear, said Mr. Villanueva.

Others inject their lips, breasts or cheek bones with silicone or vegetable oil to give themselves the softer, fuller lines of a woman.

Mr. Villanueva said their quest to look like women creates another avenue for transmitting HIV: Some share needles, not only for drug use but also for cosmetic purposes.

Half a block away, another transvestite stood near a bus stop, watching the traffic. He wore a tiny black dress and brown pumps. He accepted only two condoms -- more wouldn't fit into his clutch purse.

"OK, see you later," said Mr. Villanueva. But as the transvestite turned away to watch the street again, the outreach worker added, "Take care of yourself, honey."

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