When you say yes

 

The controversial ‘When you say yes’ poster, released in July 1990, was the first education campaign specifically aimed at young gay men.

The controversial ‘When you say yes’ poster, released in July 1990, was the first education campaign specifically aimed at young gay men.

 

In 1988, the Victorian Parliament amended the Equal Opportunities Act to make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the basis of their HIV status. Victoria was the first state in Australia to make such a change and a VAC working group had lobbied hard to make it happen. Despite this major step forward, however, homophobia was still rife, and was not helped by widespread ignorance about the spread of HIV and the entrenched belief that AIDS was a ‘gay disease’. The ‘Alive and Visible’ action of positive people at the Third National Conference on HIV/AIDS in Hobart in 1988 was especially significant given that it followed an inflammatory, homophobic speech given by the Opposition spokesman on health, Wilson Tuckey, in which he stated: ‘AIDS is very much a disease that results from deliberate and possibly unnatural activity. You don’t catch AIDS, you let someone give it to you’.1 Conference attendee Phil Carswell recalls that the response from the audience was ‘immediate uproar … The mothers of some boys with haemophilia got up and abused him’.2 Although Tuckey was soon removed from the shadow health portfolio, his attitude was reflective of anti-gay sentiment that was particularly common in the media at that time.

Although the 1987 Grim Reaper advertisement succeeded in communicating that HIV could affect anyone, not only gay men, the Grim Reaper figure was also easily misinterpreted as a representation of gay men spreading the virus, rather than a symbol of HIV/AIDS itself.3 This promoted the idea that gay men were somehow responsible for HIV. People who had acquired HIV through exposure to the virus in blood products – referred to as ‘medically acquired’ AIDS – were often seen as the innocent victims of a virus maliciously spread by homosexual men and intravenous drug users. Moreover, with its complete lack of actual information, the advertisement fed directly into the general community’s fears around HIV.

The VAC/GMHC Education Program recognised that in such a hostile environment, young men who were yet to come out as gay were particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV. Health Education Officer at the time, Bruce Parnell, recalls a group of young men in the Education Program joining together to form the Youth Project Team. They determined to reach out to young gay men who were not yet open about their homosexuality, to help them to access help and support ‘before they turn up at a venue at midnight and get drunk and have unprotected sex’.4

Launched on 25 July 1990 after three months of hard work by the Youth Project Team, ‘When you say yes’ was the first education campaign to be specifically aimed at young gay men.

The poster depicted two young men kissing with the slogan ‘When you say yes … say yes to safe sex’, accompanied by explicit text describing safe sexual practices. The campaign encouraged an image of homosexuality that was natural, normal and beautiful and moved many young men to become involved with the VAC/GMHC. Andrew Dunne joined the Youth Project Team after being ‘inspired by the enthusiasm of the campaign and the fact that it got public recognition. It created a positive, healthy image that I wanted to be associated with’.5

 

The ‘Say no to Marie Tehan’ poster, released by ACT UP Melbourne in September 1990, was a parody of the original advertisement, featuring Health Minister Marie Tehan. Riley and Ephemera collection. Poster collection ECPO AIDS. State Library of Victoria

The ‘Say no to Marie Tehan’ poster, released by ACT UP Melbourne in September 1990, was a parody of the original advertisement, featuring Health Minister Marie Tehan. Riley and Ephemera collection. Poster collection ECPO AIDS. State Library of Victoria

 

However, the campaign instantly caused a storm of controversy in the media. Some viewed the image as confronting, offensive and even dangerous, encouraging homosexuality amongst young, vulnerable, heterosexual men. TV Week magazine refused to publish the advertisement and newspapers were filled with letters about the issue. The Chief Secretary of the Salvation Army, Colonel Gordon Fisher, wrote to The Age newspaper: ‘to portray to young people at an impressionable age the idea that homosexual behaviour is natural is to do them a disservice’.6 Another writer argued that ‘the gay community wants more gays’ and thus the advertisement ‘is unequivocally aimed at recruitment’.7 Others used stronger language, such as the Bishop of Sandhurst, who described the image as ‘revolting, offensive … repugnant’.8 Victorian Shadow Minister for Health Marie Tehan agreed and declared it ‘scandalous’ that the government contribute money to such campaigns. She demanded that the Health Department withdraw funding from the VAC/GMHC if it continued to ‘promote’ homosexuality, when it should really ‘be saying that you get AIDS from homosexual intercourse’.9 The following day the convenor of the Youth Project Team, Damien Ridge, issued a press release in defence of the campaign, suggesting ‘Marie Tehan must surely be renamed the Shadow Minister for Ignorance’.10 Nevertheless, the advertisement was officially banned by the Advertising Standards Council and strong debate continued for some months.

VAC/GMHC President Peter Grant was unfazed by the raging controversy, declaring that the organisation ‘has a responsibility to “push the boundaries”, to reach out with effective messages to people who are not easily reached, even though such messages may offend some people’s sensitivities’.11 The campaign did particularly resonate with young gay men who were feeling isolated, such as James McKenzie, an early convenor of the Youth Project Team who had grown up in Bendigo, where he ‘felt that gays were the most despised people in the community’. He described seeing the ‘When you say yes’ advertisement and his subsequent involvement with the VAC/GMHC as ‘the best thing to ever happen to me’.12

 


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