Planned Parenthood billboards that advertise services to LGBT clients in rural New York State have prompted objections from critics including a state senator who says the billboards use tax dollars to promote same-sex marriage.
In February, Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes installed the billboards in locations throughout Chemung, Steuben, and Tompkins counties in western New York. The billboards say, “Someone you know is in love” and feature two men embracing, with a tagline that says Planned Parenthood is “proudly serving the LGBT community.”
While Planned Parenthood says the billboards aim to engage isolated rural LGBT people in managing their health, state senator Thomas O’Mara, a Republican who represents the area, interprets the billboards as a state-sponsored advertisement for marriage equality. WETM TV, which first reported on the controversy, included his comments about one of the billboards on Route 352 in Big Flats near Elmira.
“I object to this message that seems to be in support of same-sex marriage and using taxpayer dollars to support that political agenda,” he told the station.
Discussion of marriage equality is building in New York, where a bill failed in the senate in 2009 but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pledged to push for another vote by June. O’Mara voted against the bill when he served in the state assembly, and he also opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest, which could be a factor in his criticism of the reproductive health services provider’s billboard. His office did not respond to a request for additional comment from The Advocate.
According to Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes, the billboards form part of its multifaceted programming under a five-year grant from the New York State department of health. The grant aims to address documented health disparities in rural LGBT communities such as those found in the Institute of Medicine report and local surveys. Objectives include increasing access to health care, improving health outcomes, and building awareness of health issues.
“Regardless of our stance on gay marriage, it’s not about that,” said Maureen Kelly, vice president of programming and communications for Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. “One could perceive it as such, but simply enough, it’s that love can exist within same-sex relationships.”
She said that with the exception of O’Mara, all other criticisms of the campaign in the past month have centered on broader opposition to the “gay lifestyle.” One e-mail on April 19 came from someone closely affiliated with a conservative Christian radio station in the region.
“The homosexual lifestyle has proven to contribute greatly to the spread of HIV and AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases,” said the e-mail. “This is a very good indicator that the homosexual lifestyle choice is a bad one.”
Although the billboards are scheduled for rotation among 10 locations throughout May under the terms of an $8,100 contract, their future could be affected by some landowners’ objections. Kelly said a representative for the billboard company, Park Outdoor Advertising, alerted her last month about concerns and suggested that Planned Parenthood change the content of the billboards or remove them, which the organization refuses to do.
The billboard company representative received two phone calls from landowners who lease the property and said, “I don’t want that advertising up there.” At least one of the billboards has been moved to a location where it is expected to generate less controversy.
Despite the outcry, Kelly said most of the feedback since February has been positive. The campaign represents the first time Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes has ever presented a billboard to rally the LGBT population around access to health care.
“There’s been a whole swell of fabulous people from around town,” she said. “We have enough both anecdotal and e-mail feedback about how much it means to people.”
Watch the report from WETM TV.