A new billboard campaign is up in Schenectady, New York, showing that black gay men do exist and attempting to start conversations about sexual minorities. As I understand it, there are three billboards, each with a different picture from the right of this banner with the text "I am gay, and this is where I (stay/pray/play)."
They're stirring a controversy, which is the entire point of a billboard campaign. Unlike TV ads that are too expensive for small orgs, unless they're in a niche market, or internet ads that are only put in places where people who want to see them will see them, billboards are out in public starting discussions among people who wouldn't otherwise see them.
This article on the billboards quotes a pastor who thinks the billboards will turn people gay (how many coming out stories start with that: "I was walking one day and then I saw this billboard..."?). The writer also talked to a woman with children who didn't like the billboards, who cited the exact reason they're needed as the reason she opposes them:
Daycare provider Pamela Spicer told the City Council that the billboards were so vague they were worthless.
"These messages are a failure. I think the Department of Health needs their money back," she said. "The intent is to instruct them not to spread HIV if they have it ... That does not come across in the message."
Instead, she said, the billboards allow "inappropriate sexual expression."
She argued that the messages should be limited to adult business zones -- mainly industrial areas at the outskirts of the city.
She told the council that her clients read the billboards as she drives them to events in the city. She offers daycare to a 2-year-old, 4-year-old and 8-year-old.
"When I'm driving them to the Schenectady Public Library and they say, 'What does gay mean?' how do I answer that question?" she said. "How do I expose them to such content?"
Clearly, they're not a failure if they're getting her to talk to the kids. The 2-year-old is unlikely to read, as is the 4-year-old, and the 8-year-old can just be told that some men love women, and some men love men. Or, since she's the daycare provider, she can just tell them to ask their parents. Voilà.
Which is the entire point, according to In Our Own Voices, the group that put the ads out there:
To respond differently to HIV! As early as 1988, studies found high rates of HIV among African American/Black men who have sex with men (MSM). Now, in 2010, NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED! As you read this, the HIV epidemic is continuing to ravage Black MSM. "The response to such devastating and heart wrenching news from Black gay and non-gay communities, as well as mainstream America has been shamefully inadequate." (NYS Black Gay Network, 2007)
This campaign is about challenging the belief that our lives don't matter and aren't worth saving. It exposes and confronts homophobia, which we see in the form of inaction, silence and even violence. It interrupts that silence with a loud voice: Black gay men's lives matter!
In recent years Black Gay men's lives have been devalued in our own communities. There have been reports of shootings and stabbings of Black gay men throughout the country. The campaign seeks to mobilize Black gay men and our allies in the community to end homophobia and the violence it spreads.
It's too bad that they had to probably link up the billboard campaign with HIV/AIDS prevention to get the funding to run them. They're definitely worth a lot more for people in general (LGB or straight) than the average ad that appears in public space.