Back in 1992, during the height of the AIDS pandemic, the Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI) launched SexoLatex, the first-ever federally-funded arts campaign to address HIV prevention through sex-positive imagery. Hung inside gay bars and sex clubs across the Philly region, its three posters sought to explore the untapped eroticism of latex and make gay sex sexy again, capturing gorgeous Latino men with latex condoms, swimming caps and gloves.
“That time was full of fear,” says Peter Lien, the photographer behind the images. “In 1993, there was no effective therapy against HIV. I went to 18 funerals that year.”
But almost as quickly as the posters went up, they were torn down, sparking controversy nationwide. So much, that the staff at the printing company walked off the job, and the campaign became the subject of a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Now, 21 years later, these provocative images now grace the walls inside the John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives Gallery at William Way Community Center, providing some much-needed visual stimulation to go along with the black latex gloves practically dripping from every inch of the ceiling. More importantly, they serve as an introduction to a new, ongoing social movement about sex-positivity and community health: SEXO.
Conceived by a group of local artists, activists and friends, in conjunction with GALAEI’s PleasureRush! project, SEXO essentially seeks to continue the dialogue about sexual wellness and community health that the SexoLatex campaign started, but broadening the scope of the conversation to reflect the sexual realities of today. “It’s far more inclusive of all genders and representations within the LGBT community,” says Elicia Gonzales, GALAEI executive director and one of the project’s coordinators.
Creating a three-dimensional open forum along the gallery’s right wall, visitors are presented with four different questions and invited to voice their own opinions, adding to an ever-growing collection of Post-It notes. With the topic of sexual health in the LGBT community having long been focused predominantly on people’s physical well-being, these prompts steer the conversation out of the bedroom and doctor’s office and into the mental, emotional and cultural spheres.
Some of the varied and thought-provoking topics currently open for discussion on SexoLatex.com: Why aren’t there online lesbian hook-up websites? Are rapists who wear condoms practicing safe sex? What if Hillary Clinton had been blown?
“The hope is that people take in these messages and do whatever they want with them,” Gonzales explains. Or, as SEXO’s mission statement puts it: “Instead of shoving a bunch of activist rhetoric down your throats—telling you what should be important to you—we’re taking a different approach: asking questions about what sex means to you.”
This archival exhibition is just the first of many initiatives that the project has in store. In addition to a street art campaign and various community engagement events, later this year, SEXO will host another exhibit featuring a diverse collection of works from local artists, all inspired in some way by the original campaign.
As for why he and the fellow coordinators felt compelled to revive SEXO now, Lien stresses that there’s really several motivations. First and foremost, he says, “We’re just generally not talking enough about sex.”
Through June 15. William Way Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. 215.732.2220. waygay.org