The picture displays two men locked in a tender embrace. Next to them, a few words: With a lover, with a friend, with a stranger… each situation is different. So are the means of protection.
The ad, that can currently be found on hundreds of billboards in 130 cities in France, is part of the latest HIV prevention campaign launched by the Ministry of Health. Aimed at gay men, the ads feature links to an official website providing information about safe sex and HIV testing. A welcome initiative: 36,5 millions were living with HIV in 2014, while 2 million subjects were infected and 1,2 million died.
Not everyone is happy with the campaign though. A number of anti-gay activists, many of whom belong to the anti-gay marriage collective La Manif pour tous, have openly expressed their anger and disgust on social media, calling the ads “shameful” and “scandalous”. Louis Ronssin, who directs the west branch of the collective, has even bragged on Twitter of vandalizing one of those ads:
Former President of the Christian Democrat Party Christine Boutin, who is well-known for her generally highly conservative views, has publicly thanked Roussin for his deed; in regards to the ad, she somberly dropped, “What a shame“.
Opponents to the ads have also used child protection as an excuse to smear the campaign. Prominent conservative activist and spokesperson for La Manif pour tous Tugdual Derville has condemned the government for “inflicting those ads on children“, while a netizen openly wondered on Twitter what he would say to his “eight-year-old daughter”. Meanwhile, conservative collective Association des éveilleurs d’espérance released a statement titled Don’t touch our children! (Ne touchez pas à nos enfants !), wherein they criticized ads “showing men in decidedly ambiguous poses next to libertine and pornographic slogans”. They even announced the possibility of suing Minister of Health Marisol Touraine on the grounds of “minor’s corruption”.
The use of children to justify homophobia is nothing new. La Manif pour tous, by far the most prominent anti-gay marriage group, is well-known for endlessly invoking child protection to oppose gay marriage and the teaching of “gender theory” in schools. On their website, they exhort the “people of France” to “rise for its children”: children, they argue, need to grow up within a traditional family to have a healthy development; moreover, being raised by a homosexual couple would put them at risk of being bullied by their peers.
The use of children doesn’t stop at mere rhetoric: kids are routinely made to tag along at anti-gay marriage marches. On a protest that took place on 16 October, parents helped their offspring climb on bus shelters to proudly voice their beliefs in conservative family values.
Of course, one may wonder how parents can so vocally express their concerns that the children of same-sex couples will endure discrimination and bullying in school, while teaching their own offspring to see those children as abnormal, and their parents’ union as disgraceful… thus leading to said discrimination.
In the same vein, the correlation between vandalizing advertisements meant to help people take care of their health and protecting children seems rather obscure.
Those questions, alas, haven’t been adressed by the activists so far.
Minister of Family, Childhood and Rights of Women Laurence Rossignol has publicly expressed her frustration at this blatant instrumentalization of children in a column released on 18 November in left-wing newspaper Libération. Her anger is not only directed at Manif pour Tous and other defenders of traditional family values, but more broadly at politicians who support such collectives in the name of the “best interests of children” while pushing for policies that will effectively harm said children: for instance, by cutting allowances for families where kids skip classes, without acknowledging the various reasons (poverty and need to work, bullying, depression) that could lead them to do so. She notes that while claiming to care about family values, conservatives actually have one very specific type of family in mind: “one daddy and one mummy from wealthy backgrounds, with kids who don’t have issues of any kind.”
The backlash has had some degree of success, however: about ten municipalities have decided to take the ads down. Mayor of Aulnay-sous-Bois Bruno Beschizza has declared that the ads “went against morality” (and the delicate sensibilities of children, of course.)
Minister of Health Marisol Touraine has denounced “censorship” and will take the case to court: the campaign, she reminded the press, is first and foremost about HIV prevention and is necessary for gay people to access potentially life-saving information. A welcome reminder – and something that many guardians of morality, in their admirable zeal to save the kids, seem to have forgotten.