We Can Be Heroes
New York City’s Housing Works Joins Creative Forces With Social Media Mogul Jack Mackenroth & Celebrity Photographer Mike Ruiz To Rocket-Launch Their New Multimedia #PrEPHeroes Campaign
by Sean Black, with Chael Needle



[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ranco stands strong, his taut forearms steeped in red while a pair of angelic wings protrudes from behind him as if ready to take flight and lead him to battle.

Peter radiates empowerment behind dark plumes, his hands plated with beveled guards while Charles grins with confidence, his cobalt-blue and blackened fingertips framing the potency of his satyr’s horns.

Alex displays a gilded, regal strength, adorned in spikes of silver as his gaze lifts to the horizon and Mike confronts the viewer with courage, leather and painted skin stitching together toughness and vulnerability.


United with Seth, Nathan, Alex Z., and Calvin, they are sheathed and poised for action in protective armor and inner resolve. They summon the courage, strength and dignity of Greek, Pagan, and Aztec gods. They are as fierce and beautiful as Tom Hardy’s Mad Max. Enter the dawn of the safer-sex warriors. They are a tribe of PrEP Heroes, banded together in the fight for HIV-conscious sexual health.

Each of the nine Heroes in the newly launched, on-line social media campaign from Housing Works Community Healthcare is currently taking PrEP, the FDA-approved prevention agent indicated for individuals at risk for HIV infection through sexual exposure. Each is presented with a uniquely defining look to echo the diverse voices of the community.

“For the art direction of the campaign, I was given the instructions by [Housing Works] SVP Andrew Greene: ‘I want twisted, edgy superhero looks,’” notes AIDS activist Jack Mackenroth [A&U, November 2010]. “So I brainstormed with stylist Nick Putvinksi and sketched out looks for each guy. I didn’t want to be literal with masks and capes so I used make-up and more of a Mad Max vibe for the costumes. They evolved into something incredible. Everyone who worked on the campaign is extremely talented and it all came together magically.”


Shares Mackenroth: “The goal of the campaign is to portray these men as role models and as powerful individuals who are taking charge of their own defense against HIV. I love that they are depicted as bold, visionary ‘heroes.’ They are seizing control of their own sexual health and protecting others by stopping further HIV transmission. I hope that the stylish and provocative nature of the campaign will inspire others to take a second look, share it on social media and instigate conversations about HIV prevention.”

Renowned celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz helped bring the vision to life with his striking visual eye for exquisite imagery. Housing Works hopes that the campaign—which will surely leave its digital footprints across Twitter, Facebook, and gay dating and hookup apps, among other sites—will encourage gay and bi men who are HIV-negative to consider the benefits of PrEP as part of the prevention toolbox for serodiscordant couplings and sexual partners.



“I think PrEP can revolutionize the epidemic—totally stop transmission,” continues Mackenroth.


It’s been three years since Truvada as PrEP was approved in the U.S., and, since then, health departments in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles as well as numerous AIDS service organizations have introduced programs to make those at risk aware of the innovative prevention tool and to help them gain access to the once-a-day pill as part of a comprehensive approach to link individuals to testing, prevention education, and care. Although the PrEP Heroes campaign focuses on gay and bi men, the prevention tool has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of HIV infection among transgender women, heterosexual men and women, and injection drug users. Studies have shown a ninety-two percent to ninety-nine percent reduction in the risk of contracting HIV among those who are negative.

“PrEP is a crucial component of New York State’s Blueprint to End the AIDS Epidemic, which has been endorsed by Governor Cuomo. We have seen tremendous progress and advances in research and medicine, but now we need to work to break down socioeconomic barriers and expand access so that all at-risk communities can benefit from HIV prevention tools like PrEP,” says Charles King, President and CEO of Housing Works.


Prevention—along with frequent testing and linking individuals to and retaining them in care to suppress the virus to undetectable levels—is key to ending AIDS, but so is working against the systemic forces, like poverty and racism, that create an environment of risk. Sprung from the Housing Committee of ACT UP New York and founded on the simple premise that housing is the threshold step for improving the emotional and physical health of homeless people living with HIV and AIDS, regardless of disease progression, mental health issues or addiction, Housing Works fosters good health and positive social change through empowerment, innovation, and collaboration. Committed to health justice and advocacy, Housing Works provides essential, client-centered healthcare and support services for homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. The grass-roots organization has also turned entrepreneurial expertise into a solid funding source, with its Housing Works Thrift Shops, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe and The Works Catering account. The non-profit currently provides services for over 5,500 clients annually across New York City. Activist Peter Staley [A&U, June 2015] recently blogged that Housing Works is “one of New York’s most impactful AIDS service organizations.”


While the eye-popping campaign, with its otherworldly images, will surely catch the eye of gay and bi men, Housing Works knows that PrEP as a prevention practice is a little more down to earth. After all, the solid clinical data that supports the efficacy of PrEP means little if the prevention tool is not embraced by sexually active HIV-negative individuals as part of their daily routine. But the message the campaign is touting is crystal clear: We have what it takes to protect ourselves with PrEP. We can be heroes.

For more information about the campaign, including digital social media resources and behind-the-scenes videos, visit www.prepheroes.org. For more information about Housing Works, visit www.housingworks.org. Follow Housing Works Community Healthcare on Facebook/HWCommunityHealthcare and Twitter.


Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.


Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.