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When Pearl-Clutching Goes Wrong


Some people are more shocked over a word than the fact that gay and bisexual men of color continue to contract HIV at alarming rates.

Fuck. It’s a word to describe sex. In the context of the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s bold new PrEP campaign, F*ck Without Fear, it’s used to talk about having sex without fear thanks to recent advancements in HIV prevention. The campaign, in partnership with the city of West Hollywood, utilizes sidewalk signs that display the work “F*ck,” which ironically has already been censored by the campaign with the use of the asterisk. Some business owners and residents have come out against the campaign and the “dirty word,” going so far as to cover up or deface the word in question.

“We’ve had a lot of customers come in upset,” said Shoshana Joseph, an owner of Yogurt Stop. “They are ashamed and embarrassed by the words. Parents are appalled. Tourists are appalled.”

Do parents, tourists, and frozen yogurt shop owners need something to be embarrassed and ashamed of? Let me break it down for them.

You should be embarrassed about the fact that there were over 12,000 deaths of people living with HIV in 2014. There were nearly 500 deaths in L.A. County alone in 2014. We know how to prevent deaths from this disease yet people continue to die because of lack of access to health care and structural barriers that include poverty, lack of education, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

You should be appalled by the fact that the lifetime risk of HIV for all gay men in this country is 1 in 6. For black gay men it is 1 in 2 and for Latino gay men it’s 1 in 4, yet structural homophobia and racism keep much needed prevention and treatment resources from the communities that are most severely impacted by this epidemic.

You should be ashamed that our president wants to cut $350 million from HIV funding. We need more investment in HIV treatment and prevention right now because the lives of gay and queer men, and trans folks matter. Most Americans don’t even receive basic sexual education and in some states it’s illegal to mention gays unless in a negative context.   

You should be outraged that people want to prohibit a four-letter word that is ubiquitous in our culture when there is so much profound injustice occurring. In the U.S., LGBT people face violence, illness, and discrimination and around the world LGBT people continue to face torture and murder from hostile governments and citizenries, such as the recent killings of gay men by authorities in Chechnya.

The inability to talk openly about sex, and gay sex in particular, is what has fueled this epidemic for over 35 years. During the early years of this epidemic the Regan administration and homophobes, like Jesse Helms, did everything they could to prevent us from talking about or “promoting” homosexuality. We fought to be able to say fuck, or top, or bottom. We understood that we had to be able to speak clearly and honestly about the sex we have so we can communicate important sexual health information to our communities.

We are at a critical moment in this epidemic. We we have a medication that can prevent HIV, yet not all men know about it. Treatment can allow one to live healthy and have a normal life span, yet not all are on treatment. Now, more than ever, we have to take our message to the streets. Streets and sidewalks are where Stonewall, ACT UP, and Black Lives Matter have created change.

If this story angers you or inspires you, there are things you can do. Grab some chalk and draw Fuck W/Out Fear all over the sidewalks in West Hollywood. Contact Yogurt Stop and voice your disapproval. Thank the city of West Hollywood for supporting this campaign and ask them to extend it to more sidewalks. Support the Los Angeles LGBT Center in their education efforts and make a donation if you can. We must resist censorship and homophobia in all its forms because it’s deadly.

ALEX GARNER is the senior health innovation strategist for the gay social network Hornet.

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