The Utah AIDS Foundation has recently turned down an $87,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control over what the organization is calling censorship.
The money was to be used for the foundation’s prevention and testing programs as well as advertising its services. The problem, said UAF executive director Stan Penfold, was the state health department’s refusal to approve ads that were deemed too sexually suggestive, or those targeted towards HIV prevention instead of testing.
“What we were seeing is that we were losing money for prevention program for testing – which is vital, but testing is not prevention,” said Penfold. “[Testing] doesn’t change behavior, prevention programs change behavior. So we feel like it’s really critical that there’s a good combo of prevention programs and good access to testing. That’s what really drove our decision.”
The combination is critical, Penfold said, because HIV infection rates have been rising nationally. And Utah’s rates this year have gone up, too – particularly among men who have sex with men.
“The main infection rate in Utah is gay men – or MSMs – and it’s so difficult to get message out to gay men with some of hoops you have to jump through,” said Penfold.
Now that the foundation no longer has to seek state approval for its ads, the group is ready to jump through those hoops with a slick new ad campaign. Its goals: portraying gay relationships “in a really healthy setting” and normalizing condom use.
“[The ads] are very gay-affirming, very targeted to gay men but in a positive way, which is, you know, new,” said Penfold. The ads, he continues, try to normalize condoms by showing them in unusual places – like on top of a lamp. “In a way it’s sort of out there because you don’t see condoms every day, and [the ads] get away from the embarrassment of taking one or buying one” – an embarrassment that is community wide, not just specific to gay men.
As Penfold sees it, the new campaign is a return to some of the edgier ads UAF produced ten years ago, which spoke directly and unflinchingly about sex to gay men.
In a Salt Lake Tribune article about the new ads, public information officer Tom Hudachko said that the state health department had no policies restricting the promotion of condoms, which he called “an efficient public health tool” when “combined with testing.” He said, however, that ads that “detract” from the prevention message are rejected by the state. For example, the state killed a recent prevention ad that featured a tea kettle with the following text: “Whether you're a little teapot or a big one … protect your spout.”
Regardless, Penfold said that negative attitudes towards homosexuality in some areas of state government may have trickled down into disease prevention policy.
“The only way I can think of describing it is when we have laws on books in the state of Utah that say … you can’t talk about homo as if it’s a successful lifestyle, or promote it [in the classroom], I think that attitude is hard to get away from in state department of health,” he said.
Although the foundation has turned away $87,000, Penfold said they will not discontinue any of their services. Instead, he said they will turn to private donations to cover the costs. So far, Penfold said donors have stepped up to the challenge.
“They get it that we need to do appropriate messages for this population and the donors are stepping up and saying, ‘hey you’re the best people to do it,” he said. The group has also held a number of fundraisers across the valley and is looking to do more throughout the year, including some private house parties this summer.
Although UAF no longer receives state money for its programs, Penfold pointed out that it still gets “around 50-65,000” in federal dollars, either administered through Salt Lake City or the Utah Department of Health. These go towards treatment services for Utahns with HIV.