Last summer, while perusing archival materials for an exhibition on the history of HIV/AIDS activism, I came across a two by three foot dick pic. This was not the sort you might find on Grindr or in your Instagram DMs, but a vintage dick pic – part of a Swedish safer sex campaign called “Take care, be safe.” I was excited to share this find with my public history colleagues. After all, what better way to start a conversation with our exhibit audience than with a giant penis poster? Ribaldry aside – what about this graphic and others like it appealed (or, perhaps, repelled) their intended target audiences?
The John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives is the largest repository of LGBT primary source material in Philadelphia. The AIDS Library Graphics Collection alone contains nearly 5,000 posters, flyers, pamphlets, and comic books related to HIV/AIDS activism and awareness from all over the world. The overarching theme of sex positivity within this collection spans Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, with striking graphics that eroticize the male body. Men pose in various states of undress either subtly or prominently featuring their genitalia. The imagery ranges from suggestive to explicit, from objectifying to intimate. Close-ups seem to evoke the (uncovered) penis as a tool of life and death, beauty and danger. Meanwhile, more subtle frames render it only one part of a holistic, pleasurable experience.
Take, for instance, a series of posters produced by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) between 1988 and 1990. The first features a naked, seated white man, his rubber-clad erection prominently front and center, with the text “Dress for the occasion.” Deemed too heavy-handed by a user group of Latino men, SFAF’s next posters used a somewhat subtler approach, following the suggestion that the new posters feature two men. By 1990, SFAF had created “Listo para la acción … con condón” (“Ready for action … with a condom”) and “Get Carried Away … with Condoms.” The latter responded to Black men’s frustrations with the lack of Black representation in and access to safer sex materials.
SFAF’s Black user group appreciated the depiction of Black love – with two men warmly embracing (one penis clearly visible). Meanwhile, the Latino user group expressed concerns over recent immigrants’ reactions to the explicitness of the new Spanish-language poster – showing two pre-coital men, one penis clearly visible. Indeed, one of SFAF’s review board members, Juan Cruz, wrote – “I don’t read porno for edification or education, I use it for thrills … Why do men of color have to be reached by the most in-your-face porn and that other people, white gay men and heteros, don’t need to be informed and encouraged by such blatant material?” Cruz expressed men of color’s resistance to “liberal” and “gay white male” political agendas that threatened to undermine culturally-specific ideas of sexuality.
What do these campaigns and their histories tell us about how erotic masculinities are crafted amid crisis? Cruz’s reaction to SFAF’s Latino campaign directly contrasted with the philosophy of David Acosta, a Philadelphia-based HIV/AIDS activist and founder of the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI). In 1992 Acosta spearheaded SEXO LATEX, an erotic safer sex campaign. He argued for “speaking to Latino gay men directly in ways that say their sexual orientation and their homosexuality in a positive light.” In lieu of what he called “a shame-based prevention approach,” Acosta sought to eroticize safer sex practices, so they could be better incorporated into the everyday lives of gay men, regardless of respectability politics. He met with resistance from top-level management at a local Latinx organization for these views; this disagreement was the impetus for the founding of GALAEI.
Though explicit imagery – especially that of the phallus – has long been associated with activist militancy, urgency and sudden death, we would do well to remember the varied roles that eroticism plays in society and the ways in which it continues to shape dialogue and self-conception. Intersections of race, class, and gender inform our sexual imaginations – what is “appropriate” or “uncouth,” what is “fit for public consumption,” and, most importantly, what messages will be most impactful within our own communities.
As Dan Royles noted in his NOTCHES piece on federally-funded safer sex campaigns directed at poor people of color, sex positive content tends to draw the ire of those who are both socially and fiscally conservative. Researching, processing, and curating “NSFW” history for public consumption receives similar criticism. The controversies sparked by activists who produced erotic campaigns at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic may still be keenly felt by queer public historians seeking funding and publicity for their grassroots organizations. So, how can public historians justify the historical relevance of erotic materials while also respecting the cultural and political sensibilities of our constituents?
All images used with permission. We gratefully acknowledge the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Act Up NY, and RFSL (Swedish Federation for Sexual Equality), Stockholm.
GVGK Tang is a public history MA student at Temple University in Philadelphia specializing in transnational queer history and politics, nascent community-building, and identity construction. Tang aspires to engage the needs of disenfranchised communities and encourage inclusive, meaningful dialogues through thought-provoking media and exhibitions. Tang tweets from @gvgktang.
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