Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Queer youth work too graphic for Macy's show


LYRIC's Jodi Schwartz. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Content developed by queer youth from San Francisco's Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center has raised red flags for organizers of the annual "Teen Night" at Macy's Passport show, an HIV prevention education event and fashion show held this week at Fort Mason Center.

Now, LYRIC is claiming that LGBTQQ youth have been excluded from the event and its HIV prevention messages, while Macy's maintains that its issues were not with gay-specific content but with LYRIC's more graphic contributions, including references to SM and sex work that could have threatened the comfort level of the diverse group of teens in attendance.

It all began in March, when Macy's invited LYRIC to become a beneficiary of Passport Teen Night on September 19. According to LYRIC Executive Director Jodi Schwartz, Macy's offered the group $10,000 and asked its members to design and operate three HIV prevention games for youth that was inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth. But Macy's public relations staff later decided to reject games developed by LYRIC youth interns, said Schwartz, because they felt the games had too much "gay content."

"The LYRIC staff member asked if we needed to be aware of any concerns that Macy's West might have about language that would be used in the games. Passport Teen Night staff said that explicit language was not a problem. This position--that explicit language was not a problem--was repeated several times at subsequent meetings," said an open letter to Macy's from LYRIC's Schwartz. "We created games based on classics like Jeopardy. Unlike questions in the actual Jeopardy game, our questions challenged youth to imagine themselves in various roles and situations, facing behavioral choices that would result in a higher or lower likelihood of contracting HIV. Another game awarded a point for any answer that indicated the player gave some thought to the question.

"During the beneficiary meetings and other communications between March and late July, it became clear that Passport Teen Night staff were highly uncomfortable with the content and language of LYRIC's games. Passport Teen Night staff asked LYRIC to revise or remove dozens of questions from our games."

Schwartz went on to cite questions developed by LYRIC, which included scenarios like, "You have just been kicked out of your parents' house. Do you: a) Stay with a trusted friend; b) Stay with someone you don't know very well and c) Trade sex to stay at someone's house." Another question asked teens how they would handle a partner who refused to have anal sex with a condom.

But Macy's spokeswoman Betsy Nelson told the Bay Area Reporter that she was "confused" by the LYRIC statement and open letter released on Tuesday, hours before the show was to open.

"We asked them to exclude questions that were very graphic in nature. But [the questions cited in Schwartz's letter] are not the kinds of questions we asked them to remove," said Nelson, who added that for any sexual orientation, Macy's also would want to exclude graphic content from its teen show.

"This audience is a very diverse audience in terms of race, gender preference, everything. The goal of Teen Night is to educate and to do it in a manner that makes kids comfortable so that they're not intimidated. There's all kinds of kids, and they are learning about HIV, and we don't exclude anyone. It's free, and we send busses to pick up thousands of kids from all over," said Nelson.

Nelson added, "There is content about HIV and how you get HIV. Macy's specifically doesn't talk on the topic; we use other groups to do that. The speaker this year is gay and is from Larkin Street Youth Services and will be speaking about how he got HIV from unprotected sex with his male partner. Gay sex is not excluded from this messaging; the young man is going to talk about his partner and crystal meth in front of 3,000 kids.

Too safe for comfort?

Nelson emphasized again that it was the graphic nature of some of the LYRIC questions that were troubling.

"The goal is for a comfortable environment where people learn," she said. "We don't want people to feel intimidated by the questions, and some of [the LYRIC questions] included asking teens to imagine themselves as sex workers and how they should behave with clients and johns."

Whether the questions rejected by Macy's were more graphic in nature is not the issue, said Schwartz. At its core, she said, the problem is that a group of LGBTQQ teens was asked for input, went on to develop its own material that was relevant to the sexual health of its LGBTQQ community, and then was told that information was not welcome.

"Our role as LYRIC is to support youth voices. We were invited to the table to bring a youth voice to Macy's Teen Night. We brought that. We felt it was important. The youth did an incredible amount of work. Really what it came down to was that Macy's disinvited LYRIC from educating youth at Teen Night when [the youth] refused to remove the LGBTQQ youth material from their project. The youth were silenced in this process."

Schwartz said she has a hard time with the Macy's event billing itself as HIV "education" without it also including frank discussions of many different kinds of sex, regardless of audience background or how many of the youth identify. Assumptions that heterosexual youth or teens from certain backgrounds don't engage in certain sexual practices, she said, are dangerous assumptions to make in the world of HIV prevention.

"I agree with Macy's that youth need to feel safe to engage in HIV prevention. But if their definition of safe is to remove LGBTQQ content, then certainly there is a large segment of youth who are going to feel unsafe, and in fact that's what was experienced by our youth in this project. They did not feel safe; they felt silenced and under-valued, " said Schwartz. "What this comes down to is that Macy's limits open and honest dialogue about youth sexuality, and without that you can't have effective prevention. I'm the first to say Macy's has done a lot of good community work and has prioritized HIV funding. But that doesn't qualify the company to direct HIV services or Macy's staff to determine the strategy of HIV education."

Macy's has given LYRIC $5,000 and invited the group to attend Tuesday's Teen Night so that Schwartz could experience the event firsthand "to see who the audience is and experience the spirit of the evening, to really understand," said Nelson.

Schwartz said LYRIC was not in attendance.

Nonprofits back Macy's

In response to LYRIC's statements, a group of community members--mostly executive directors from HIV/AIDS nonprofits--issued a letter on Wednesday, September 20 to express support for the Passport event and highlight Macy's longstanding contributions to HIV/AIDS fundraising.

"In those very early days Macy's stepped forward before anyone else would to raise awareness and provide critical funding for HIV research, care, prevention, and education. The Macy's Passport event, which began in the employee cafeteria basement of Macy's San Francisco men's store, has grown to be the largest fundraiser for AIDS in the country," said the letter, which noted that Passport has raised $24 million for community organizations.

The letter was signed by the directors of Positive Resources Center, Larkin Street Youth Services, Tenderloin Health, AIDS Legal Referral Panel, Stop AIDS Project, Project Open Hand, National AIDS Memorial Grove, and Jeff Sheehy, HIV/AIDS policy adviser to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Sheehy said he signed the letter to show support for Macy's, which outside of the Passport event places no restriction on the prevention messages of the groups it funds, he said, and to encourage dialogue between the two groups.

"It's legitimate for queer youth to say, 'You should listen to us when you're trying to talk about queer youth and HIV.' It's also legitimate for Macy's to be not really edgy on sexual content," said Sheehy. "The role of queer youth should be to push the boundaries. I think I would be disappointed if they did otherwise. But Macy's is not homophobic. It has been supporting HIV and AIDS services and organizations for 24 years, back at a time when we had doctors and nurses in this country who would not touch people with HIV."

Schwartz said LYRIC's position is no way challenging the good work that Macy's has done, but that it has always been LYRIC's role in the LGBT community and the world at large "to make space for youth voice," which she said is "a challenge in many forums, not just Macy's...this letter [from nonprofits supporting Macy's] is a symptom of that."

"The issue is about queer youth voices standing up and saying, 'We need to talk about this. We need to be open about this'," said Schwartz. "I agree that a fashion event may not be the forum for effective youth HIV education; so let's create a different forum to ensure that happens."

Communication between youth and adults is something that needs to be improved from all sides, said Schwartz, who added that LYRIC is working toward that goal. As for the community letter in support of Macy's, Schwartz said she would have appreciated some "relationship-building phone calls" from the AIDS groups' directors before it was released, but that ultimately, she was never seeking others' support for LYRIC's position. "We're not launching a campaign or asking people to stand with us. We're just saying this is something we need to be having a dialogue about. And as I told Macy's, all I see [the LYRIC press release and letter] doing is broadening who can be a part of this conversation."

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