The Los Angeles LGBT Center’s controversial F*ck w/out Fear campaign to raise awareness about the PrEP drug is helping the City of West Hollywood achieve its goal of zero HIV transmissions. The marketing campaign may be causing ire for its use of a curse word, but it’s also getting people talking and getting people on PrEP, so the end result is worth it. That was the message coming from the West Hollywood City Council meeting on Monday night as several councilmembers and the public discussed the campaign.
“If you have seen maybe what some of us saw during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, you would know that we didn’t reach the place that we are without being irascible, unreasonable, confrontive, bellicose, rude, overly assertive, aggressive, in your face about the transmission of HIV and its prevention,” said Councilmember John Duran, a longtime AIDS activist who is HIV positive. “It was because of that attitude and that posture that we managed to not only change medical care in this country, but we were able to develop drugs that now exist that are saving people’s lives. If people are feeling some discomfort around this campaign, that means it’s working. We need to cause some discomfort.”
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a drug regimen that is proven to reduce the risk of HIV infection by as much as 99%. It requires taking daily a blue pill called Truvada. The drug has been around for about five years, but is not widely known, especially among those most at risk for contracting HIV – young gay and bisexual men, African-American and Latino gay/bisexual men and transgender women.
Jim Key, director of marketing for the L.A. LGBT Center, told the Council that the number of people who have gotten on PrEP since their aggressive, in-your-face F*ck w/out Fear campaign began in early January has doubled each week.
“No other PrEP campaign has been this successful,” Key said. “By granting us permission to promote the campaign on sidewalks, [the City of West Hollywood is] saving us tens of thousands of dollars that can go to services and care rather than to advertising and you’re promoting PrEP, helping to protect countless people from HIV.”
Last week, murals for the F*ck w/out Fear campaign were painted on the sidewalks in several places in Boystown, the city’s LGBT entertainment district, and immediately sparked conversation and controversy over the use of the F-word, even though an asterisk is substituted for the “u.”
“If an asterisk can change the way this pill is perceived, I honestly think it’s just something that needs to be there,” said Jimmy Palmieri, who serves on the city’s Human Services Commission. “It really confuses me that when we have a campaign that is possibly in your face, but causing discussion, why anybody can be against it. Maybe they haven’t seen what gay men went through and what folks with HIV went through years before.”
Brian Risley, director of programs at WeHo’s Men’s Health Foundation, believes raising awareness is ultimately a good thing.
“The good news is that strong social marketing campaigns can create healthy dialogues,” Risley told the Council, “but the bad news is it can create misconceptions.”
Within days of the sidewalk murals’ debut, several of them were defaced. The “F*ck” portion of the mural near Yogurt Stop shop was covered with paper while the “F*ck” on several others was spray painted over. On March 31, sheriff’s deputies arrested Francis O’Brien, a Los Angeles resident, charging him with felony vandalism of the murals.
However, this marketing campaign and the vandalism have been widely ignored by most media outlets.
“I think it has not received more mainstream press because they are not quite sure what to do with the salty language,” suggested Councilmember John D’Amico, who is also HIV positive. “You can’t report on salty language without reporting salty language.”
Councilmember John Heilman is glad the City Council approved the sidewalk mural campaign.
“It’s critical that we do everything in our power to stop the spread of HIV and PrEP is one very important tool in the tool box,” Heilman said. “PrEP is right for a lot of people, and we want to continue to encourage and push everyone where it’s appropriate to get on that so we can stop the spread of HIV.”
Duran emphasized that the city’s zero HIV transmission goal, adopted several years ago, is achievable.
“If [the F*ck w/out Fear campaign] makes you uncomfortable, I’m sorry,” Duran said, “but we’re going to get there [to zero transmission] one way or the other.”
Health organizations promoting PrEP also recommend that men use condoms to further reduce HIV transmission risk and the risk of other sexually transmitted diseases.