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Controversy brewing over pregnant boy ads
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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To a lot of transgender people, the ads first appear to be stunningly progressive images of transgender men, shirtless and pregnant, pasted on public transit. But in reality, some say, the ads are offensive.

In May, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) launched an edgy ad campaign featuring pregnant teen boys. "Unexpected?" the ads read. "Most teen pregnancies are."

The campaign aims to reduce teen pregnancy rates in Chicago, which remain higher than the national average despite a 33 percent drop over the last decade. The ads tell young men to wear condoms or wait to have intercourse.

The campaign follows a similar effort in Milwaukee, and they have attracted praise both locally and nationally.

But the Chicago ads, intended to shock and seemingly targeted at straight teenage boys, have sparked tension as some say the campaign stigmatizes transgender men.

Andrea Quijada, executive director of the Media Literacy Project (MLP), is among them.

Quijada argues that the campaign reinforces what it means to be "male," painting transgender men as abnormal.

"This idea of men being pregnant becomes a joke, and it creates an unsafe space for real trans people," said Quijada.

Quijada's organization turned the CDPH image on its head, releasing a play on that campaign that reads, "Trans men have babies too. All families, whether born of chosen, thrive on love, not shame."

Transgender men are able to give birth, a fact well-publicized in the U.S. by the 2007 pregnancy of Thomas Beatie, a transgender man.

Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, a national organization that pushes for comprehensive sex education for youth, also has concerns about the CDPH ads. She laid out her thoughts in a post on RH Reality Check, a website with information and news on sexual and reproductive health issues.

But Schroeder also points out that there are redeeming factors in the campaign, most notably that it puts young men at the center of the discussion, something rarely done when it comes to sexual health and young people.

"How often do we hear boys and men mentioned, let alone visually represented, in materials relating to sexual and reproductive health?" Schroeder writes. "It has been great to see an increase in so-called male involvement programs and organizations working with boys and young men, so we are certainly making some progress here. But the vast majority of sexuality education curricula available to the general public, media stories about sexuality, and other interventions continue to focus first and foremost on girls and women."

According to CDPH spokesperson Brian Richardson, officials did consider trans people when deciding to launch the campaign. Richardson said that the department consulted with both LGBT and transgender advocates.

CDPH chose not to run with the tagline used in the Milwaukee ads, "It shouldn't be any less disturbing when it's a girl," which generated harsher criticism.

"Part of the ad concept was to be jarring and to challenge gender norms and behaviors and for people to understanding that teen births are not an issue that only female-identified teen moms are dealing with but an issue that we are all dealing with," said Richardson.

And if the ads have sparked debate, Richardson said, they have done what they were intended to.

"That's a good thing when you have local news discussing trans men's health issues," he said.

Indeed, the ads have cropped up in both local and national media. In recent days, the ads have been featured on Feministing and Colorlines, although both feature the MLP adbust.

Hale Thompson, a Ph.D. public health candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that not all chatter around the ads is inevitably positive.

"I think we have set the bar very low if these effects constitute success," Thompson said.

"Creating a controversy based on stigma and shame generates conversation because adults—and perhaps youth too— are trying to figure out how to counter the negative impact this kind of campaign has. Other reports have said the images mainly incite laughter among cisgender teenage boys, and I imagine they reinforce silence among gender non-conforming youth."

Thompson also argues that the campaign puts the blame on youth, without interrupting the societal factors that contribute to teen birth rates—like access to resources, information and services. His thoughts are laid in a post on the Original Plumbing website, trans male magazine.

But Richardson contends that the ad campaign is but one part of "Healthy Chicago," the mayor's plan to improve wellness in the city. That, he said, does lay out plans to address the larger issues facing youth of all ages.

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