Since its launch on January 8, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s frank new PrEP awareness campaign, F*ck w/out Fear, has already led to an increase in clients wishing to start taking the once-a-day pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pill.
But Jim Key, the campaign’s chief marketing director, was distressed to learn that one of the campaign’s chalk art installations along Santa Monica Boulevard was vandalized this morning. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department subsequently arrested and charged 48-year-old Francis O’Brien for felony vandalism.
“We’re incredibly grateful to them for catching and charging this person,” Key said, “but we’re really concerned about this censorship and destruction of a public health campaign that’s designed to help those at most risk of HIV learn that they can now protect themselves with a pill.”
When taken regularly, PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of HIV transmission up to 99 percent. But not everyone who is at risk for HIV/AIDS knows how to get started on the medication or even if they can afford it. Key explained, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a gay man who doesn’t know that condoms protect them from HIV, but there are still way too many people, particularly those at greatest risk, who don’t know about Prep or who have misconceptions about it.”
To clear up any confusion about PrEP, the Center partnered with the City of West Hollywood to create the attention-grabbing F*ck w/out Fear campaign with a specific focus on those at greatest risk of HIV: young gay and bisexual men of color and transgender women.
The campaign includes billboards advertising free PrEP consultations (at PrEPHere.org); free PrEP-branded condoms on board the city’s Santa Monica Boulevard trolley service, The PickUp; and colorful sidewalk art in front of the many bars along Santa Monica Boulevard. It was one of these art pieces that was vandalized this morning.
While PrEP has been proven to be effective and safe, it is not without controversy. Some, both within and outside the LGBT community, oppose wide-scale endorsement of the regimen by public health officials because they believe it will encourage unprotected or “reckless” (as Key put it) condom-free sex, putting people at increased risk for other sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis or gonorrhea.
However, the F*ck w/out Fear campaign actively promotes the use of condoms and provides education about the unprotected sex, with or without PrEP. The vandalized artwork, in fact, featured condoms.
It is not clear at this time if the alleged vandal was motivated by opposition to the campaign or PrEP. Nor is it clear if there is any connection between today’s vandalism and the anti-LGBT graffiti that appeared on an exterior wall at the Center on February 9.
In any case, vandalism will not be enough to stop what appears so far to be an effective street-level approach to public health. As Key said, “We’re not going to let it stop us. We’re going to fix the artwork and we’re going to continue our campaign.”
— By Abby Dees