Regarding the LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s new “HIV is a Gay Disease – Own It, End It; social marketing and advertising campaign (“HIV Ads Embrace, and Stun, Audience” (Sharon Bernstein, September 30): As a gay man living with HIV since 1990, and since that time working in HIV mental health and social services in various community agencies (including the LA Gay & Lesbian Center), and as currently a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in serving gay men, including many living with HIV, I am deeply offended by this campaign. I find this campaign heinous as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. It is a throwback to the early days of the AIDS crisis when anti-gay forces in this country used AIDS as “justification” to hate and discriminate against the entire gay community, without realizing that AIDS is a disease caused by a virus that can strike anyone – regardlesss of sexual orientation, gender, age, or race. It is an insult to the thousands of gay men and non-gay people (especially women) who have died from this disease and who fought against this sentiment to raise awareness that everyone is at risk for HIV infection and needs to act accordingly. It is an insult to the women with HIV who are already struggling to gain the resources they need in an under-served community, and as the former Associate Director of Los Angeles Family AIDS Network, a local Los Angeles organization that serves women, children, and youth with HIV, I know first-hand the frustrations they face when the general public and even the government see HIV/AIDS as strictly a disease of gay white men.
This campaign is also fatally flawed from what it is not. It does nothing to promote the practical considerations of sexual harm reduction, such as using condoms or choosing oral sex as an alternative to the more risky unprotected anal sex. Do Lorri Jean, CEO of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center, and her cohorts need to be reminded of the basic math of how many years have elapsed in the fight against HIV and related prevention advertising campaigns? Campaigns such as, “Dress for the Occasion”, which depicted a cropped photo of a naked man’s torso and crotch with an erect penis with a condom over it, was produced by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in 1988. That means that a 24-year-old gay man reading the local gay publications where the “gay disease” campaign was recently published (IN Los Angeles or Frontiers) today would have been 6 years old when that campaign came out. We can hardly say explicit social marketing campaigns that teach and promote condom use and specific sexual harm reduction have been tried and failed on the current generation of sexually active gay men; they’ve never seen such a thing. And in the current extremely conservative political climate, where restrictions on the content of federally-funded campaigns (through the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services) are more extreme than ever, they aren’t likely to – despite how effective they might prove to be, as they were in achieving increased condom use in the late 1980’s.
For Jean and to imply widespread “complacency” about HIV prevention among gay men without explaining in detail how she surmised this assessment insults, underestimates, and infantilizes the current generation of young adult gay men. How would she know to what extent gay men discuss the terms of safer sex and HIV prevention issues in the privacy of their bedrooms, or even in bathhouses or sex clubs? As a middle-aged lesbian, how would she know? Accusing the entire gay community of complacency when actually, in my role as a psychotherapist who specializes in serving gay men, I hear every day how HIV is eminently on the minds of gay men, to the extent where we currently have a divided gay community where far too many HIV negative gay men simply shun HIV positive gay men in all ways – not only for even safer sex, but for relationships or even all forms of socialization.
Instead of Real Prevention (the name of the independent organization that I co-founded with about a dozen other local gay activists in the wake of other recent offensive social marketing campaigns), once again the gay community is assaulted from within itself with an expensive social marketing campaign that seeks only to shock rather than to support, teach, and enhance gay men’s health via truly relevant and effective HIV prevention. It merely enriches the for-profit coffers of Better World Advertising at the expense of insulting the entire gay community. The admonishment to “Own It. End It” implies that it is solely up to American gay men living in the local catchment area of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center to end the entire 30-year global AIDS pandemic, and at the risk of making the Understatement of the Year with still a full three months to go in 2006, it’s a little more complicated than that. Jean writes about how gay men need to take responsibility for ending the AIDS crisis, then says nothing about how they are to accomplish this. She also laments how it’s government funding cuts – not gay men – who impede the effectiveness of recent HIV educational programs and campaigns. How about also considering the role of government censorship, which prohibits sexually explicit materials, or materials that “promote homosexuality”, or those which deviate from the “abstinence only until marriage” mandate on federally-funded content, and then deny that such content restrictions even exist? Is the Center “selling out” just so they can get funding from Bush Administration federal government sources like the CDC or the US Department of Health and Human Services? Since when does the LA Gay & Lesbian Center capitulate to the Right Wing at the expense of the local Los Angeles gay community? That’s a dark day for the memory of the deceased gay men who have bequeathed fortunes in donations to the Center and whom the Center has named their impressive buildings after. How can this campaign, and Jean’s support of it, serve the mission of the Center? How can its Board of Directors tolerate such a contradiction, in this era of scarce funding, an extremely anti-gay president, and continued fierce battles for gay rights across the country?
Only the more self-loathing components of a city’s population would tolerate campaigns such as this without indulging in high-visibility acts of profound civil disobedience, just on the dumbed-down principle of blithely pairing a disease with its most prevalent population according to public health statistics. We tolerate “HIV is a Gay Disease” with relatively little broad community protest. Would the same be said if other slogans were in publications and billboards that reached tens of thousands of people on a daily basis? What if we tried some others? Such as: “Tuberculosis is a Mexican Immigrant disease – Es Suyo – Terminalo.” Or: “Syphilis is an African-American Transgender Sex Worker disease – Own It, End It.” Or: “Bulimia is a Rich White Women’s disease – Own It, End It,” or “Diabetes is an Obese Person’s disease – Own It, End It.” How many of these alternative slogans – all compelling, from strictly a public health statistics standpoint – would (appropriately) last more than a day without large-scale vocal protest? If it would be outrageous to insult such other local minority communities in this way (to the point where such campaigns would never even be conceived, let alone receive tens of thousands of community donor dollars to pay a private, for-profit advertising agency in another city to develop it), why is the gay community any different? Why do gay men tolerate such an injustice?
While preventing new HIV infections in all populations is of paramount importance, the job of designing and implementing social marketing campaigns must be approached with more social responsibility and compassion than we have seen of late from several of our institutions entrusted with this charge in Los Angeles County. We must replace the current popular approach of shock, shame, and stigma as a means of HIV prevention and replace it with more practical, intelligent, science-based, fact-based, and compassionate measures. I call on public health officials, the community of gay men, the community of non-gay persons living with or affected by HIV, and other concerned citizens to demand better performance from our local institutions and their leaders. I call on those concerned to demand real prevention to address the very real problems of HIV and its prevention and treatment. I call on the Board of Directors of the LA Gay & Lesbian Center to hold those responsible accountable. I call on those concerned to develop and implement awareness and educational campaigns that promote real and practical sexual harm reduction. I call on our institutions to meaningfully address the role of substance abuse in HIV prevention. And I call on the gay community to shun their (alleged) complacency not only about HIV prevention but also to fight harder against those who would demean us, from outside, or even from within, our own community.