When city resident Maxine Brisport first saw one of the billboards featuring a black man proudly proclaiming “I am gay,” she said she had no idea what kind of message the billboard was trying to send.
Brisport, a former president of the city school board, had to come to a forum on the topic of the controversial billboards, hosted by the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission on Saturday at Schenectady Community College, to get her answer. Wes Holloway, a member of the county commission, said members thought it was necessary to have a public discussion about the billboard campaign because so many members of the public had complained. The campaign features 18 billboards as well as advertisements on buses and at bus stops that feature a black man with his family saying “I am gay, this is where I stay,” a black man on a basketball court saying “I am gay, this is where I play,” and a black man with a priest saying “I am gay, this is where I pray.”
Saturday’s forum featured speakers Tandra LaGrone, director of In Our Own Voices, the agency that put up the billboards, members of the commission and Elmer Robert Keach, a lawyer representing the New York Civil Liberties Union.
LaGrone explained that one of the ideas behind the billboards is to provoke a dialogue about issues of homosexuality in the black community.
“As people of color, specifically as black people, we have so much work to do. As a community we need to take a look at each other and how we love each other, or the lack of love. It breaks my heart to sit in this room and realize all of the work that still has to be done,” LaGrone said.
Jaye Holly, vice president of In Our Own Voices, said the billboard campaign was paid for by a $50,000 grant from the New York State Department of Health and is aimed at combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS in the black community. She said the campaign helps to address the stigma that exists in the black community against homosexuality, which may be a contributing factor to why black men don’t seek testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS.
“The purpose of the Department of Health funding is clearly to address the spread of HIV/AIDS, but the barrier to getting people into services, testing and education for safer sex, the barriers are the stigma and discrimination that people feel in the African American community in particular,” she said.
Brisport said she applauds the intended messages of the billboards but doesn’t think the billboard campaign communicates that message very well.
“I think for the average person driving by to see that, they are just going to think it’s promoting people to be gay,” she said.
The billboard campaign was praised during the forum by several people who said it presented a positive message about homosexual black men, in a society that has few positive examples for them. A white person who described himself as transgender said while he is often made fun of for being short and bald, his transgender status is rarely attacked, because it is invisible, much as gay black men are invisible in America.
SCCC student James Powel, a black man who attended the forum to get extra credit for his abnormal psychology class, said he has a 19-year-old gay son and he doesn’t approve of the billboards, but he supports the conversation they’ve stimulated. He said he believes the billboards are analogous to advertisements for a fast food restaurant like Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“Could it be like Pavlov’s dog? Does this promote gayness? Is this going to be a fad? Most of the ads I see at the bus stop are for things like a bucket of chicken and they say let’s go toward this, let’s go to Kentucky Fried,” he said. “I can honestly say I’m afraid of the billboards. I don’t have a lot of understanding. I guess I’ve got some research to do.”
Many of the supporters of the billboards seemed to view homosexuality as being genetic, in the same sense as a person’s sex or race. People against the billboards usually took the view that homosexuality is a choice.
Hayes Field, a black man from Albany, said his Christian faith teaches him that people should remain abstinent before marriage and he fears the billboards might motivate a teenager with a marginal sexual identity to try out homosexuality.
“I think advertisement is exactly what it is, it is to draw people in and effect change. It’s advertising that draws people to the other product,” he said.
More from The Daily Gazette: