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Fear and HIV Prevention Shouldn't Mix

Why the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Frightening New Public Service Announcement Geared Toward Gay Men Does More Harm Than Good

December 21, 2010

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Second, the men in the ad look utterly miserable and ashamed of being who they are. By demonizing gay sex, being gay and being HIV positive, this PSA only pushes HIV/AIDS back into the closet -- something the NYC DOHMH claims it doesn't want to do. How does this empower anyone to take responsibility and respect himself enough to use a condom? How does this lessen the stigma around HIV? I fear this ad will just feed into the fatalistic and self-hating mentality that some young gay men have: Why use condoms when I am destined to have HIV because I am gay?

Most importantly, this ad is problematic because it's completely insensitive to the fear that many LGBT people -- not just in New York City, but across the country -- face on a daily basis by being out with their sexual orientation or gender identity. There is the fear among some that they could lose everything because they can be legally fired in the state in which they live for being gay. Or the sheer panic that overcomes many transgender people when they walk out their front door because of the harsh reality that they may never make it back home alive. Or that menacing pit that lives in the stomachs of our LGBT youth when they pull up to school and realize that they have to face another day of torment.

We live in a society that has more contempt, than it does compassion for the LGBT community.

This October, it was that exact sentiment that Joseph Jefferson, a 26-year-old, Brooklyn HIV/AIDS advocate, conveyed on his Facebook page right before he hanged himself. He wrote, "I could not bear the burden of living as a gay man of color in a world grown cold and hateful towards those of us who live and love differently than the so-called 'social mainstream.'"

This PSA, however unintentionally, plays into that legacy of hate.

And even though the NYC DOHMH uses fear to raise awareness around other health issues, such as smoking, influenza and binge drinking, it must be noted that HIV and sexual orientation carry a hell of a lot more cultural, political and emotional weight than having one too many cosmos and not getting a flu shot. And while it's not the NYC DOHMH's job to unpack and sort through all of the LGBT community's "baggage," the agency does have a responsibility to be somewhat culturally competent. Perhaps if it had been more aware, we would have seen messages about other barriers to condom use, such as homelessness, low self-esteem, sex work, economic instability, substance abuse and a lack of condom negotiation skills.

Remember, HIV is never just about complacency.

Most likely, this campaign will fail, especially since numerous studies have found that fear-based campaigns don't really alter people's behavior in the long run. But even if "It's Never Just HIV" were to be successful at doing what it set out to do -- scaring the shit out of gay men in order to get them to use condoms -- that public health win would come at a high personal price. Because to sell HIV prevention using fear (as opposed to using love and validation), does nothing but inflict more unnecessary trauma upon the same vulnerable and at-risk community that the NYC DOHMH claims it wants to protect.

And in the end, that's a lose-lose for all of us.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and The views reflected in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of itself.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
"I Talk Because": A Better Way to Do HIV/AIDS Awareness Ads
Fact Sheet: HIV/AIDS and Young Men Who Have Sex With Men
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More Personal Views on HIV Prevention for Gay Men


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