Today In History, 1990: Illinois Senate Tries To Ban “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” Campaign

Jim Burroway

June 22nd, 2016


The AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s spawned some of the most creative and confrontational artistic efforts in queer history. This is the decade that gave rise to graffiti artists like Keith Haring (May 4) and David Wojnarowicz (Sep 14), as well as the influential artist collective known as Gran Fury. Formed in 1988 as an outgrowth of New York’s ACT UP and taking its name from the midrange model of Plymouth police cruisers prowling New York City’s streets, Gran Fury shunned the then-fashionable depictions of pathetic and helpless AIDS “victims.” Instead, the collective sought to re-focus the public’s attention on its casual acceptance of homophobia and how that blocked progress in getting the government’s attention to the crisis. Gran Fury saw itself, in the words of its participants, as ACT Up’s “unofficial propaganda ministry and guerrilla graphic designers.” Gran Fury’s output was provocative — at least as provocative as two men or two women kissing can be. Which in 1990 was still very provocative — so much so that the Illinois Senate tried to ban Gran Fury’s images from Chicago buses.

read-my-lips-gran-fury-2Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill campaign was a natural progression from their 1988 Read My Lips campaign, named for President George Bush’s famous promise he made not to raise taxes during the Republican’s infamous “culture war” convention in Houston. The Read My Lips campaign consisted of a series of posters and T-shirts with vintage photos two men or two women kissing and a banner splayed across the image reading “Read My Lips.” Those posters were typically used to advertised “Kiss Ins” and other demonstrations linking homophobia to the government’s inadequate response to the AIDS crisis. ACT UP understood very well the meaning of the Kiss In: it was “an aggressive demonstration of affections” to “challenge regressive conventions that prohibit displays of love between persons of the same sex.” Some more private expressions of love were still criminal offenses in 24 states states and the District of Columbia, and many politicians used that criminalization, along with appeals to Americans’ general squeamishness over the very idea of same-sex love, to justify limits to funding AIDS research.

In 1989, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) commissioned Gran Fury to create a poster for an “Art Against AIDS On the Road” initiative. Gran Fury idea was to create a bus board, designed to be attached to the sides of buses and transit trains, mimicking the what had been an attention-getting (and, in some quarters, controversial) multicultural ad campaign by Benetton’s clothing stores. Gran Fury’s submission, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, features three racially-mixed couples — an opposite sex couple, a male couple and a female couple — mid-kiss, with the message across the top reading “Kissing doesn’t kill: greed and indifference so.” Gran Fury’s submission also included, across the bottom, another message: “Corporate greed, government inaction, and public indifference make AIDS a political crime.” AmFAR, however, was reliant on corporate and other external support, and asked the rejoinder be removed. Gran Fury agreed. As one member of the collective put it, “In general, we tried to remain aware of what was permitted in public space. If our message was too radical, we risked both access as well as a broader public reception.”

KissingDoesn'tKillThey were right. While the bus boards appeared on mass transit in such cities as San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., to considerable controversy, they appeared without eliciting strong attempts by transit officials or politicians to block them. That wasn’t the case in Chicago. With the bus boards now stripped of its explicit AIDS message across the bottom, politicians saw the advertisement as an incitement to public displays of affection. Chicago alderman Robert Shaw proposed a city-wide ban on the ad, saying that Kissing Doesn’t Kill “has nothing to do with the cure for AIDS. It has something to do with a particular lifestyle, and I don’t think that is what the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) should be in the business of promoting.” He also claimed that the ad “seems to be directed at children for the purposes of recruitment.”

A Kissing Doesn't Kill banner held aloft in the Chicago Pride parade.

A Kissing Doesn’t Kill banner held aloft in the Chicago Pride parade.

The Chicago city council voted down Shaw’s ban, but his proposal found new life in the state legislature. On June 22, the Illinois Senate approved a bill prohibiting the CTA “from displaying any poster showing or simulating physical contact or embrace within a homosexual or lesbian context where persons under 21 can view it.” After protests from the gay community — a large Kissing Doesn’t Kill banner was carried in Chicago’s gay pride parade, and a Kiss In was held at the CTA’s maintenance depot — and warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union that the bill was unconstitutional, the Illinois House voted down the Senate’s bill. Chicago mayor Richard Daley asked Gran Fury to create a “less offensive” image, a request that Gran Fury turned down flat. In August, 45 Kissing Doesn’t Kill billboards began appearing at bus stops and train platforms.


A vandalized billboard on a Chicago train platform.

Within two days, most of them were vandalized. (Chicago wasn’t alone. Ads were also vandalized in other cities where the ads appeared, even in San Francisco.) Ironically, that only drew more attention to the Kissing Doesn’t Kill campaign from the city’s newspapers, radio and television. One AID prevention director said, “I was listening to all the people calling in on the radio talk shows this morning and I thought in opening up discussion on what this poster means and how we react to these three couples, it is far more successful than anything that would have just given facts.” Kissing Doesn’t Kill, with its rejoinder restored, would go on to become Gran Fury’s most popular work, appearing on T-shirts, posters, the mainstream presses, and museum exhibits.

[Source: Richard Meyer. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality In Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 225-241]

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