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Bay Area Reporter

Why we’re running ads again

Keith Folger

There’s a haunting scene in the new documentary The Gift, in which a young man who recently tested positive for HIV says, “Nobody told me.”
Told him what, exactly? I’ve been HIV-positive almost 10 years and since 1999 have worked with Positive Force, the Stop AIDS Project’s prevention program by and for HIV-positive gay and bi men. I could have told him plenty about life with HIV. I could have told him how isolating having HIV could be. How it would be like coming out all over again, trying to decide who to trust with the information, who needed to know. I could have warned him about the people who would tell him what he’d done wrong and how ashamed he should be. How much HIV itself or the meds to treat it would make him hover close to a toilet for weeks at a time. Or how he’d agonize over his body changing in unfamiliar and unwelcome ways – protease paunch, neuropathy, facial wasting. Been there, had that.

Perhaps even more disturbing to me than the young man in the film are the handful of men in their 40s who revealed to me over the last few months that they have just tested positive, too. These men lived through the horror of the epidemic for the last 20 years. What happened to make them think that HIV is now of little consequence?

After the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival screened The Gift last month to a full house at the Castro Theatre, hundreds of men stuck around for the Stop AIDS Project-sponsored discussion about transmission, personal responsibility, and the reality of living with HIV. Over and over, audience members and those on the panel called for information and education that would continue to dispel the myth of HIV as a manageable, minor disease. I didn’t agree with everything expressed in the film, but the need to sustain that momentum was crystal clear.

When Positive Force launched the “HIV is No Picnic” campaign last October, it was in response to exactly the kind of misperception documented in The Gift. We were sick and tired of hearing negative friends and acquaintances say that getting HIV just wasn’t a big deal anymore – all while insisting that we shouldn’t rock the boat by portraying people with HIV as anything other than the protease success stories they’d seen on billboards.

Nobody was asking us for the real deal, the truth in advertising facts between the scare campaigns of the 1980s and the ubiquitous “climb every mountain” drug ads of the late 1990s. Nobody was asking us, but we were ready to tell. Four of our own members bravely volunteered to be the brutally honest face – or body – of HIV, sharing their stories with the team at Better World Advertising and participating in community events as spokespeople. “HIV is No Picnic” ran weekly in this newspaper for four months and was blown up to bigger than life-size on Muni shelters all around the city.

We retired the campaign in February, after four months of ads, articles, community forums, and even a few protests. The most discussed prevention campaign this city has seen in years, “HIV is No Picnic” was covered by magazines and TV stations in the United Kingdom, France, Amsterdam, and Korea. Here in the U.S., Poz magazine hailed it as “a success – it took a conversation that gay men were having in private at 2 a.m. and imposed on an entire city.”

We didn’t think the problem was solved or the issue was over, but shrinking funds demanded that we turn our attention to new challenges, such as making sure that Positive Force – a pilot program funded by the CDC for the last four years – would remain intact when its grant runs out at the end of 2003. But the audience at The Gift forum and the feedback we’ve had from the community have convinced us that if there’s a saturation level for a realistic depiction of life with HIV, we haven’t yet reached it.

Now, even as the Stop AIDS Project faces serious threats to our federal funding because of our commitment to provocative HIV prevention, we’re running the “HIV is No Picnic” campaign in its entirety for two more weeks. We’re committed to keeping this conversation going until it sinks in. I’m glad to be alive – that’s not just a tag line written by some ad exec, that’s the truth of my life as a HIV-positive gay man in San Francisco. But HIV is still something we’re trying to prevent, and we’re not done yet.
So here it is again. Tear it out. Talk to each other about it and your lives and what your community needs from an HIV prevention organization. Then come tell us all about it.

We’re going to keep talking about the reality of life with HIV – and without – in ways that look and sound true to this community, even when it’s controversial to do so. That doesn’t mean we’ll all agree. But there’s one thing I know for sure. You can’t say now that nobody told you.

Keith Folger is manager of the Positive Force program at the Stop AIDS Project.