Posters in the prep4love advertising campaignlaunched last year by the Chicago PrEP Working Group ( CPWG ), an ad-hoc coalition of advocates and service providershave occasionally been defaced in various Chicago Transit Authority ( CTA ) locations, particularly advertisements that have featured images of gay men. According to CTA and CPWG officials, however, the defaced ads are replaced as quickly as possible.
In early October, Chicagoan Nathan Petithomme and two friends noticed a such an ad defaced at the 87th Street CTA station. Someone had written "what's this gay shit" on the poster, which depicted two men in an embrace.
Petithomme reacted quickly upon seeing the poster, he recalled, adding, "I instinctively said, 'Let's reclaim this ad."
He and his friends wrote a response: "It's love."
Petithomme and his friends noticed the vandalism on Oct. 6. When he was at the station next, on Oct. 11, the poster had been desecrated further. The image of the men had been cut out completely.
"I was kind of heartbroken," he said, to see what lengths people would go to ruin the ad.
According to CTA guidelines, the ad should have been replaced quickly.
"When CTA and its advertising vendor become aware of the ads that have been defaced, we take immediate action to replace the damaged ads," said CTA spokesmen Jon Kaplan in an email to Windy City Times. "CTA and its advertising vendor also have instructed employees to be alert and report any activity that may be related to this vandalism."
Chicagoan Timothy Garrison notified Windy City Times and CTA officials of similar vandalism later in October, this time at the Garfield station on the Green Line. Someone had similarly scrawled obscenities on the posters, and removed the images of the individuals from them. In that case, CTA removed the damaged signs but did not immediately replace them. Garrison wrote on Oct. 21 that he saw a damaged sign lying below the platform. One sign, undamaged, was still up.
Launched in early 2016, the prep4love campaign was intended to call attention to the availability of PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, and was mainly directed at persons of color, a demographic health officials and advocates is at higher risk for HIV infection.
PrEP has been proven to be over 90 percent effective in preventing new infections. In order to appeal to diverse audiences, campaign designers utilized subjects of varied ethnic, gender and body-type configurations.
Neither CTA nor Jim Pickett of CPWG could say how frequently or infrequently the vandalism occurs.
"We've had the campaign up in three different waves, and it has happened every time," noted Pickett, who added that vandalism occurs primarily with images of gay men. CTA station employees are given extra copies of posters in case vandalism occurs, and are instructed to quickly replace them.
The desecration, Pickett added, "is animated by homophobia and fear of gay men."
Nevertheless, he said that CPWG "thought long and hard about this" when they were designing the prep4love campaign, and knew the potential for vandalism would occur with a campaign that had a citywide scope. But the message was important to deliver.
"Our message was that, 'As a community, we're resilient and thriving, and we're unapologetic,'" he said. "…This is want happens when we put ourselves outside our normal box."
Though the situation was not quickly rectified in the case of the 87th Street station last month, Pickett said CTA usually has been responsive and fast to act when CPWG notified them of problems.
"They have a zillion ads," he said. "I think they do their best."
Petithomme nevertheless said that seeing the results of the vandalism functioned as "a reality check to say that there's visible homophobia, even without visible aggression. There's still people out there who feel this way."
Pickett said that, with a campaign that's intended to be joyful, "seeing it vandalized can feel visceral." At the same time, he said the community has registered a lot of support when reporting damaged ads, and he was heartened by responses like Petithomme's."
"It's gratifying," he said. "It's another sign of our strength and ability to overcome."