Pitt Men’s Study Tony Silvestre takes the plunge into local activism

Anthony “Tony” Silvestre joined the staff of the Pitt Men’s Study in March as the director of community programs. Silvestre comes to Pittsburgh with a wide and varied background: he served as the executive director of Eromin Center in Philadelphia and was an activist for gay rights in the early ’70s at Penn State University. Currently, he heads the Pennsylvania Governor’s Council on Sexual Minorities, the first such state government council in the United States. In the following interview, Silvestre talks about the council, Eromin Center, the study, his new life in Pittsburgh, and more.

JON F. MACKEY: What does your position as community programs director with the Pitt Men’s Study mean to you?

TONY SILVESTRE: I don’t know any other issue in our community today that is more important than AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Men are dying, men are living in fear, gay men are confronting issues about their health, lifestyle, coming out, and in common are dealing with society’s reaction, which ranges from right-wing, religious leaders who seem to rejoice in our pain to service providers who are afraid to deal with gay people. So. in a sense, AIDS crystalizes all of the issues we face as a community, so I feel like I need to be there.

JFM: How important is the Pitt Men’s Study to AIDS research?

TS: I think the study is among one of the most important ones going on in the country. We’ll be looking at thousands of men who live in a low-risk area, we’ll be gathering specimens and data on sexual behavior and lifestyle and other information from healthy gay and bisexual men and we’ll be trying to figure out how men can reduce their chances of getting AIDS. At the same time we will be offering optional free venereal disease and hepatitis tests and a good deal of education on health issues.

JFM: How does the Pitt Men’s Study Fit into the national effort to find a cure for AIDS?

TS: The Pitt Men’s Study is one of five federally funded studies trying to uncover risk factors for AIDS. The other study centers are the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles, the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic in Chicago, and the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. It is important to recognize that, at a national level, these study centers represent a spectrum of risk for gay men living in these areas from high risk (San Francisco) to low risk (Pittsburgh). It is an essential piece of the AIDS puzzle to study men in the Pittsburgh / tri-state area because we, at present, seem to be a low-risk area The critical question is why? Are there lifestyle differences among gay men here relative to high-risk areas? Are there differences in sexual practices here? These questions are at the heart of the importance of the Pitt Men’s Study in the national AIDS research effort.

Tony Silvestre finds Pittsburgh “by far the most livable city I’ve lived in,” and feels the Pitt Men’s Study will contribute significantly to AIDS research.

JFM: What does all this mean in terms of the Pittsburgh gay community?

TS: I think our community has an incredible opportunity to make a difference. Our efforts here will have an impact on gay people all over the country. Since I’ve been here I’ve been inspired by the fact that so many different people in our community are working together, in a spirit of fellowship and caring for each other. I’ve talked to the Tavern Guild, leadership of gay organizations, drag queens, men in the leather fraternity, street people, bath owners, professionals, bisexuals, men who are white, black, and Hispanic, old and young. I am impressed with their commitment to the study, their interest in learning about AIDS, and their cooperation. Our community’s experience with this study can be a model for dealing with all kinds of other issues.

JFM: How are you planning to insure the confidentiality of all participants?

TS: I have been very impressed with the seriousness with which study personnel have dealt with this issue. During my five years at Eromin Center, we gathered mental health information on hundreds of gay people. We developed a very rigorous policy and procedure to insure confidentiality. I was surprised to find that the Pitt Men’s Study has even more safeguards than we did! There is a clear understanding between the Pitt Men’s Study and the National Institutes for Health that names or any identifying information shall never be given. We have received a federal Confidentiality Certificate from the Department of Health and Human Services. This protects the privacy of study volunteers by withholding their identities from all persons not connected with the research.

JFM:I understand that you have formed a Community Advisory Board. Can you tell me what its purpose is?

TS: The search committee for the study which was made up of gay people also chose 14 people from the community, to act as an official advisory group to the study. They include Bill Kaelin from the Arena Baths. Chuck Locy from the Crossover Bar, and others. They will keep me informed about community sentiment and needs, review our recruitment plans, and keep the community informed about what we are doing. The board is balanced and committed. Our first meeting went very well and I have great expectations for the group.

JFM: Will people who volunteer for the study get anything for their participation?

TS: Yes, without a doubt. They will know that they have helped themselves and others. They can feel good about doing something constructive for the community, themselves, and the people they love. Concurrently, they will be getting free VD and hepatitis tests and good health education. Everyone I know has questions about AIDS. And finally, they will be able to get straight answers – so to speak!

JFM: Are the tests free?

TS: Yes.

JFM: Are there any risks of getting AIDS by being in the Pitt Men’s Study?

TS: Some people are concerned about the possibility of getting AIDS by participation in the study. That is, of course, unfounded. All of our procedures are safe, our staff is well-trained and our equipment is sterile. The sterile needles we use for the blood tests are only used once and then destroyed. Our tests are as safe as any routine physical examination.

JFM: When will the volunteers be contacted?

TS: We are already beginning to contact volunteers. Not all of our clinics are fully operational. By the end of May, I expect that we will be fully underway.

JFM: As a new arrival in Pittsburgh, what do you think of our city?

TS: I love it. Having been born and raised in New York City and lived in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, I can say that Pittsburgh is by far the most liveable city I’ve lived in. I’m excited by the degree of cooperation between the Tavern Guild and lesbian and gay professional, social, and political groups. I feel like the city is on the move up.

JFM: Do you think Pittsburgh will ever have a prominent lesbian and gay community, comparable to Philadelphia’s and other large cities?

TS: From my experience with the gay community in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, New York City, and California Cities, I think Pittsburgh is already comparable and in some ways surpasses. New York City does not have a functioning gay and lesbian community center. Philadelphia does not have a tavern guild. Washington, DC does not have its own local political action committee. So, on the whole, Pittsburgh is ahead of some cities in certain areas and I think the local activists and business people have a right to be proud of their work.

JFM: Are you disappointed with anything about the city?

TS: Well, my lover is not here. Doug is still keeping our home together in Philadelphia.

JFM: Does Doug intend to move to Pittsburgh?

TS: We are working on that.

JFM: How long have you and Doug been lovers?

TS: Six years.

JFM: We haven’t heard much about the Governor’s Council for Sexual Minorities which you chair. Is it still functioning?

TS: Very much so. Our Council meets every six weeks and has been working on AIDS at the state level. With the Philadelphia AIDS task force, we have worked with the State Department of Health to make AIDS a reportable disease in Pennsylvania and set up a statewide task force on AIDS. Now we are forming a violence project and will be gathering data on violence against lesbian and gay men throughout the state for use by us and the National Gay Task Force. We will be announcing the details soon.

JFM: Are there other projects the council has worked on?

TS: The other important work that has been done recently is to act as advisor to other cities and states. We helped Mayor Wilson Goode develop his plans for a Philadelphia Council for Sexual Minorities. We have given information to the Ohio Task Force, the California Commission on Privacy, and other groups.

JFM: Has Governor Thornburgh made appointments to the Council?

TS: No.

JFM: Why?

TS: The people who were appointed continue to serve. As for new appointments, I know he has considered them but taken no action at this time.

JFM: Is he homophobic?

TS: I don’t think you can say that. He has cooperated with us. His cabinet members and departments, such as the Department of Health and Welfare and the Human Relations Commission, have responded appropriately to our requests and his personnel have been helpful.

JFM: You were director of the Eromin Center until August 1983. The center just closed in February of this year. What happened?

TS: Well, it was very unfortunate. Speaking for myself, I can only say that people allowed their feelings to run away with themselves. Some very bad decisions were made after I left as Trade Vergara, my replacement, told the gay press in Philadelphia. The new leadership had unrealistic ideas of how to raise money, and as a result, they lost $7.000 a month after I left.

JFM: Why did you resent the board’s takeover?

TS: I felt an obligation to our corporation to uphold Eromin’s bylaws and policies. When the board created a new job description for me last July, they used it to evaluate me for the six months before the job description expired. That is contrary to the most basic notions of fair play and I felt that it betrayed everything Eromin stood for, so I resisted. I could have won in court but I wasn’t about to force the agency into receivership of the Attorney General’s office. I was content to let the corporation know what was happening.

JFM: How do you respond to several board members’ charges that you were a poor administrator?

TS: In five years I received three evaluations by boards. They were all excellent and my numerical score ranged between 90 and 100%, on various items such as administrative supervision and financial management. This new board made a number of charges, all of which were dismissed when I appealed the board’s denial of my unemployment benefits to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

JFM: I understand that you were offered Steve Endean’s former position as executive director of Gay Rights National Lobby. Is this true?

TS: I was a candidate for that job but I took the job with the Pitt Men’s Study before any formal offer was made.

JFM: You have been active in the movement since 1969. What motivated you?

TS: My own sense of self-worth has affronted by governmental and religious norms which said I was a criminal and a sinner. I knew better and I guess I’m too arrogant to sit by and put up with it. The Catholic Church has well-trained a lot of us activists, like Ginny Apuzzo and Jean O’Leary. When I was a religious—that’s a Brother (much like a nun)—I learned to respect truth and justice. Well, the oppression of lesbians and gay men is not just, and the things we learned about homosexuality were not true. So I just followed my gut and became active.

JFM: How long were you a Brother?

TS: Six years.

JFM: What role does religion now play in your life?

TS: I’m not a member of any organized religion but I am a spiritual person in many ways and I guess my values and moral code must closely resemble the Quaker system. If I were to join a church, it would probably be the Quakers.

JFM: What is your academic background?

TS: I have a master’s degree from Penn State in Sociology and I’m writing my Ph.D. dissertation on “Heterosexually Married Men Who Are Gay or Bisexual,” which I’ll be submitting for publication sometime in the next six months. I did my undergraduate degree in sociology at King’s College in Wilkes-Bane.

JFM: While you were at Penn State, their gay student organization, Homophiles at Penn State (HOPS), was being formed. What role did you play in this?

TS: When I first got to Penn State I was active in the anti-war movement. I had just finished my two years of alternative service as a conscientious objector. Within a month of arriving at the university, Joe Acanfora was fired as a student teacher just because he was one of the people suing the university because they denied recognition to HOPS. That outraged me. Here’s a guy fired because he exercised his legal rights as an American citizen. So I joined HOPS. We beat the university and I was elected president after three years of the group’s exile. It was a very exciting organization. We had a hotline, newsletter, coffeehouses, speakers bureau, and dances. A good number of HOPS people have gone on to continue as activists in the movement – such as Janice Irvine who works for Gay Community News and just won a lawsuit against the University of Massachusetts. Jerry Weller, acting director of Gay Rights National Lobby, and Shelly Hamilton of MCC, among others.

JFM: The Pitt Men’s Study is a limited-term project. What do you see yourself doing after that

TS: I intend to live my life one day at a time. I expect that my future will resemble my past and so I expect I will continue working for social change.