SEXO LATEX

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Bringing Sexy Back
Twenty Years After Its Launch, a Groundbreaking HIV Awareness Campaign Makes a Comeback
by Chip Alfred

In December, the competitors (front row) posed with the GALAEI team, including its executive director, Elicia Gonzales, (back row, second from right), at an event to crown Mr. SEXO 2013. Photo by Tara Lessard
In December, the competitors (front row) posed with the GALAEI team, including its executive director, Elicia Gonzales, (back row, second from right), at an event to crown Mr. SEXO 2013. Photo by Tara Lessard

The year was 1992. Gay men across the country were salivating over a series of images that sparked a firestorm of controversy in Philadelphia. SEXO LATEX, an HIV prevention campaign featuring hunky, nearly-naked Latino men, was facilitated by the GALAEI Project (Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative), now known as GALAEI, a queer Latino/a social justice organization. “It was the first-ever AIDS awareness campaign in history that used sex-positive imagery that appealed to gay men,” declares Elicia Gonzales, GALAEI’s executive director. “Safe sex messages weren’t resonating with us,” explains SEXO LATEX photographer Peter Lien, fifty-three, about the prevention messages that were prevalent at the time. “I was adamant about not putting ‘safe’ and ‘sex’ together in the same sentence because there is absolutely nothing safe about sex,” he asserts. “The only thinking was that latex is sexy. We’ve taken the eroticism out of latex with condoms. We’re going to give gay men suggestions of eroticism that could also have a little latex or vinyl.”

The seed for the rebirth of SEXO LATEX was planted when a young GALAEI staffer discovered the original posters and was instantly captivated by them. A creative team was soon assembled to conceptualize the reimagination of SEXO. “It’s a celebration of sex. It allows people to be free…to explore their sexuality in ways that are affirming and celebratory,” Gonzales, thirty-nine, tells A&U. “We hope it becomes this sort of indescribable movement so it can take on a life of its own and turn into whatever we need it to turn into.”

SEXO kicked off in 2013 with an exhibit at Philly’s William Way LGBT Community Center. It was the best-attended archival exhibit opening in the center’s history. SEXO project manager Aaron Stella, twenty-eight, attributed the success of the relaunch to its broader audience appeal. “Today we want to make this campaign about everybody because sex is a part of everybody’s life.” Written on one wall of the interactive exhibit were four questions. Attendees were encouraged to jot down their responses on Post-it notes and stick them on the wall. “We want people to feel like they have permission to customize what the message means to them,” says Gonzales, who, along with her team, plans to use the answers to these questions, listed below, to inform the evolution of the project.

• Can pleasure be meaningful?

• How does sex make your life more meaningful?

• Why do we often fixate on the potential physical risks of sex instead of exploring the ways it enhances our lives?

• How would celebrating sex transform us as a community?

One of the posters photographed by Peter Lien from the original SEXO LATEX campaign
One of the posters photographed by Peter Lien from the original SEXO LATEX campaign

GALAEI founder David Acosta, fifty-five, who helped spearhead SEXO LATEX, says the organization’s sex-positive focus is nothing new. “GALAEI was founded due to the lack of programming about addressing the HIV and AIDS epidemic among gay Latino men from a culturally competent lens. We needed to be pro-gay men and pro-gay sex from a perspective that spoke to their sexual orientation in a positive light.” SEXO LATEX was an attempt to make sex—at least protected sex—sexy. “We didn’t want to preach. We wanted condoms to be prominent in all of the three images. They’re just there—just the images, no text. People were allowed to read into it whatever they wanted.”

But before this federally-funded campaign could get off the ground, GALAEI organizers had to overcome a major hurdle—finding a vendor who would agree to print the posters. According to Acosta, due to the explicit gay content, no printer in the city would take on the project. Two gay men who owned a printing company in working-class Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, stepped in and accepted the job. The only problem was that their employees refused to print the posters. So the couple came in after hours and ran the printing press themself.

The next challenge came after the artwork was printed. Each poster was designed with a specific venue in mind. The least provocative of the images—a man emerging from a pool wearing a latex swim cap—was designed for mainstream venues. The other two were targeted for gay-specific locations like bars and bathhouses. Once the campaign launched, the posters were being taken down as fast as they were being put up. Acosta believes this happened for two reasons. Some people were tearing down what they found objectionable, while others were taking down the posters to frame and hang in their apartments. Some of the racier posters ended up being taken down from gay venues and reposted in more mainstream locations—adding fuel to the fire. No matter where they ended up, these rare images of hot gay Latino men continue to be collectors’ items. “Some of the posters ended up in bars and museums as far away as Seattle and San Francisco, and one poster still attracts attention on eBay, albeit twenty-one years after its censoring,” Gonzales confirms.

In 2011, GALAEI established Pleasure Rush, one of the first multimedia projects to incorporate sex-positive imagery into the HIV prevention world. Pleasure Rush was created to engage the LGBT community in healthy, natural dialogues about sex. Now SEXO is finding a younger audience and encouraging people to explore their sexuality in new and different ways. Other SEXO initiatives included a workshop entitled Beyond Our Bodies, facilitated by porn star and lecturer Connor Habib. The adult film actor, who takes a holistic approach to sexuality, divided the audience into small groups to talk about sex—strangers sharing with strangers intimate details of their lives they may never have discussed before.

The SEXO LATEX exhibit. Photo by Peter Lien
The SEXO LATEX exhibit. Photo by Peter Lien

Last fall, GALAEI launched CafeConSEXO, a series of weekly YouTube talk shows addressing questions about how to have a pleasurable and healthy sex life. Giving head was the topic for the premier episode—a very frank, slightly tongue-in-cheek panel discussion with three GALAEI staffers demonstrating their favorite fellatio techniques. What surprised me most about the video was not the discourse itself, but my own visceral reaction to it. As I listened to three young people talking about blow jobs, I found myself a bit uncomfortable, reinforcing the SEXO team’s notion of our society’s inherent, often subconscious aversion to having conversations about sex.

To bring its sex-positive message to the forefront, GALAEI, in partnership with PhillyGayCalendar, recently hosted the first annual Mr. SEXO competition. The event featured a hot body contest and the crowning of Mr. SEXO 2013. Gonzales says GALAEI will continue to look for similar non-traditional ways to sustain the momentum of the SEXO initiative.

Reflecting on the trigger for the inception of SEXO LATEX, Lien recalls, “We wanted to show our community that we loved each other and we wanted to touch each other. People were scared of taking risks, but without taking risks you don’t really get anywhere. The fact that the most controversial poster was also the most stolen and coveted meant to me that the message worked. To me it meant that the message was authentic.”

For more information about SEXO LATEX and other GALAEI programs, visit www.galaei.org or http://on.fb.me/1cksCum.

To watch CafeConSEXO on YouTube, log on to: http://bit.ly/188IVLt.

Chip Alfred is an A&U Editor at Large based in Philadelphia.