Poster boys

  • by Daniel J. Demers
  • Wednesday July 16, 2014
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The safe-sex poster that started it all. Photo: Courtesy<br>Mick Hicks
The safe-sex poster that started it all. Photo: Courtesy
Mick Hicks

Robert Gray grew up in San Francisco's Bayview Hunter's Point district, a predominantly African American community. It was a rough place. Gray told the Bay Area Reporter, "It was a tough place to be gay and grow up," adding that he "had to endure being taunted and had his share of fights."

From the time he was a senior in high school he began "sneaking into gay bars and discos in San Francisco's Castro and Tenderloin districts" â€" meeting and dating men. By 1984, he was well-known in the neighborhoods. He remembers sitting at a kitchen table in a Castro apartment with a guy he was dating and reading in the newspapers about gay men coming down with lesions and strange symptoms.

"Friends and acquaintances were going to the hospital in droves," he recalled. "I remember men walking around the Castro with canes â€" that's how you knew they were sick â€" the lesions on the bottoms of their feet were painful, and so they used canes to minimize the pressure when they walked. It seemed like hundreds and hundreds of canes."

Like everyone else at the time, he was scared and worried, "Is it going to hit me?"

Gray wished there was something he could do, when out of nowhere he was approached by a man who "asked me if I would be willing to pose for a safe-sex poster for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and I agreed." Gray's near-perfect physique â€" enhanced by long hours at the gym â€" made him the perfect candidate for what the foundation wanted to communicate. He was asked to meet with photographer Mick Hicks. Hicks, who had studied photojournalism at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, worked for literally all the gay newspapers in San Francisco during the 1970s and 1980s, covering gay life, celebrities, events, and parties.

By 1984, Hicks had been working for a year and a half on a series of photos of people with AIDS, chronicling their struggle with the disease "up until they died." He also was working with a nurse on developing an instructive slide show to be used to teach health care workers about AIDS. He recalls, "Doctors and nurses were unsure and scared. They would wear rubber gloves and masks when they saw gay patients then." The medical profession hadn't quite figured out exactly what was causing AIDS â€" although it was pretty clear it was being transmitted sexually and intravenously through dirty needles. Hicks was asked by Rick Crane, director of the foundation, to shoot a photo for a safe-sex poster.

Thirty years later, the creation of that poster, and the controversy that followed it, speak to both the evolving notion of gay liberation and the changing racial relations within a minority community that were a backdrop during the AIDS crisis.

On a cold San Francisco morning, Gray arrived at the Mission/Noe Valley flat where Hicks and his partner at the time, Nick Cuccia, lived. Cuccia, then 32 and an editor at the Oakland Tribune , was conveniently enlisted to be the second model in the shoot that took place in the living room.

Cuccia also vividly remembers the AIDS crisis when "people in the Castro looked shell-shocked, when people started disappearing." He had worked with Crane to edit and design a newsletter for the then AIDS/KS Foundation.

Cuccia didn't know Gray and he remembers it as an almost surreal experience, "a couple of naked guys embracing on a cold morning while Mick took 50 or so photos." It was the first time either had posed naked with another man. He recalls the poster and the controversy it elicited, a controversy that hit home personally â€" and humorously â€" when it found its way into a column by the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. Among his comments, Caen wrote that "the black guy was athletic and buff, but for some reason the white guy is an overweight blob with an enlarged posterior." Cuccia laughingly told the B.A.R., "I didn't have a model's body, but I wasn't overweight either and I didn't have a big butt!"

For Gray, who was 24 and working in construction, the controversy also hit home personally â€" but in a different way: He was still living with his parents. He remembers watching the local news with his mom and dad when the poster flashed on the screen as a reporter discussed it and the interracial controversy. He hadn't come out yet. He said, "My heart pounded with worry that mom and dad were seeing me naked embracing a white guy and realized I was gay." He was relieved when they didn't make the connection.

Crane told the B.A.R. that the poster was created as a "baby step" with a couple of messages. At the time, "Everybody was afraid of sex and we wanted to promote the idea that gay sex was positive if men would simply use condoms and druggies would quit sharing needles," he said. He also noted that portraying an interracial couple (Gray and Cuccia) subtly highlighted a deeper issue. "Gays as a group were considered second-class citizens and, ironically, gays themselves were treating gay blacks the same way â€" as second-class citizens."

The poster depicting a white man's arm wrapped around a black man's torso â€" and vice versa â€" immediately caused a sensation. Crane noted that many gay bars in the city found the racial overtones of the poster unacceptable and refused to display it.

Although tensions were waning, even in the "anything-goes" Castro and Tenderloin areas, there remained a racial divide. The Pendulum was "the [Castro's] only gay bar where black and whites went to meet; the other Castro bars catered primarily to whites. They were not interracial," recalls Gray. The Pendulum was different and, according to Gray, a group called Black and White Men Together was formed to show solidarity. He also recalled that a bar called the Trap, located in the Tenderloin district, also catered to interracial couples.

The poster went on to be displayed in bathhouses and bars from San Francisco to New York and eventually found its way to Australia. Then a new controversy surfaced about the poster and its message â€" intended or not â€" about gay sex. A retrospective by Harvard's Gadi Niram confirms Crane's assertion that the early AIDS posters "portrayed â€" even promoted â€" [gay] sex as normal, expected behavior ... and highlighted the pleasure that could be had while still protecting oneself against infection."

And therein lay the controversy: It was the first poster to portray gay sex as normal, even between men of differing races.

The first safe-sex poster incorporated "acceptance and self-esteem" as its overall message, Niram said. It was presented to the world at a time when gayness was viewed as aberrant and AIDS was thought by many as a visitation of the wrath of God on immoral men who were violating God's law. It shocked traditional society, which reacted with moral outrage over its interracial portrayal of two men. The poster's narrative message â€" which advocated "mutual masturbation," "erotic massage," "imagination and fantasies," and "limiting social drugs" â€" was condemned as an affront to decency and family values. Gay sex was still widely condemned and governmental health agencies, hospitals, and medical professionals were unsure how to deal with the disease that had begun to reach epidemic proportions.

The 1984 poster would be the first of many more to come. San Francisco graphic artist Buzz Bense accumulated 150 such posters, one of the largest private collections. In 2011, he donated them to the San Francisco Center for Sex and Culture, which recently exhibited the collection and has just published a catalogue showing 49 of the posters. In the catalogue's introduction, Bense writes that the posters represent "a story of a fight against stigma, hatred and ignorance; of a community stepping up to take care of its own ... [of building] pride and self-esteem ... and [the efforts] of committed activists to communicate a path to health and survival." The largest AIDS epidemic poster collection, numbering 6,200, is housed at the University of Rochester.

Cuccia, Crane, Gray, and Hicks probably never thought in such lofty terms, but there is little doubt their effort was the first chapter of the story.

Today, at 54, Gray is still an imposing figure. He owns and operates Cuts on the Green, a barbershop in the upscale Northwood Golf and Country Club in Sonoma County's Monte Rio community. He and his husband, Charles "Chuck" Prince, have been together 34 years. They married in 2013.

Cuccia and Hicks each left San Francisco in 1986 for separate adventures. Cuccia, now 62, moved to Los Angeles, where he spent 21 years as an editor and designer at the Los Angeles Times and is now a software trainer and consultant. He is a long-term survivor of HIV, having been diagnosed in 1985. Looking back, Cuccia says he didn't know it at the time, but ironically, he may have seroconverted before he posed for the poster.

Hicks, 67, continued his passion for photography in Boston and San Diego before settling in Los Angeles, where he specializes in portraiture and feature-film promotional stills.

Reflecting the times and, indirectly, the devastating toll taken by AIDS, Crane commented to the B.A.R. that it's remarkable "that all the principals [Cuccia, Gray, Hicks and himself] survived the AIDS crisis, and all are still alive and able to describe the poster's genesis."

 

This piece is an adaptation of one that ran in the Gay and Lesbian Review. For sourcing, see the online version at ebar.com.

 

Sources

Article poster, http://aep.lib.rochester.edu/node/47378 (Accessed January 25, 2014)

 

Articles

Dorian Katz, Curator for the Center for Sex and Culture, Safe Sex Bang: The Buzz Bense Safe Sex Poster Collection, Poz , November 2013 http://www.poz.com/articles/dorian_katz_2676_24712.shtml (Accessed January 29, 2014)

Gadi Niram, Blast from the Past: Bringing Back Community Involvement and Positive Messages in Safer-Sex Interventions among Gay Men, Challenging Dogma, December 18, 2006 http://sb721.blogspot.com/2006/12/blast-from-past-bringing-back.html (Accessed January 29, 2014)

 

Interviews/email correspondence:

Robert Gray, 7/13/13; 12/14/13; 1/15/14; 2/5/14; 2/11/14

Mick Hicks, 10/17/13

Nick Cuccia, 2/11/14; 2/21/14; 2/22/14; 2/24/14

Rick Crane, 1/31/14

Buzz Bense, 2/2/14

Dr. Robert Lawrence, S.F. Center for Sex and Culture 2/10/14

Dorian Katz, Curator, Center for Sex and Culture 2/11/14

Walter Thompson, Esq. 2/3/14

Lori Birrell, Manuscript Librarian, Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester 2/21/14

Dr. Edward Atwater, 2/26/14

Jim Kuhn, Manuscript Librarian, Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester, 2/26/14