The words are carefully carved out, with scissors or a sharp blade. At times, they are covered with tape. The goal of the handiwork, health advocates say, is clear: Take "gay, sexy, healthy" out of public view.
The phrase, part of advertisements throughout the Chicago Transit Authority, has been disappearing from buses and trains. Gay-health activists, who helped fund the campaign, say they don't know who is defacing the ads, but they call it a blatant sign of intolerance.
"When I saw one ad defaced, I didn't want to think it was a big deal," says Jim Pickett, director of advocacy at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "But I was concerned when I saw three. They didn't deface the whole ad. They were specific, as if 'gay' is a bad word."
CTA spokeswoman Katelyn Thrall today says she could not immediately confirm whether the CTA knew about the ad defacements before the Daily News contacted her or whether officials have a suspect.
The ad campaign -- with about 40 ads on the backs of buses and about 170 inside Red Line trains -- began earlier this month with funding from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sponsors of the project, administered by the AIDS Foundation, includes three other nonprofits: the Center on Halsted, the Howard Brown Health Center and the Test Positive Aware Network.
Pickett says the goal of the ads is to encourage healthy lifestyles as part of a broader drive to prevent HIV and methamphetamine use among gay men. Rather than condemn drug use or unsafe sex, Pickett says the ads use positive reinforcement.
"We wanted it to be very public," Pickett says of the campaign. "We wanted it to be a message that the whole world would see: Gay men are healthy."
One ad shows a man holding a condom. There's another with a man wearing pink swimming goggles. Others show two men smiling at each other and a man flexing his bicep.
The advertisements ask, "How are you healthy?" and include a link to the Web site for LifeLube (nsfw), a forum where gay men share tips and questions about healthy lifestyles.
"Clearly, the target audience is gay people," says Simone Koehlinger, director of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health at the Chicago Health Department. "But when you're supporting one group's health, you're supporting everyone's health."
Koehlinger says she saw an ad on the back of a bus in which red tape that closely matched the background color of the ad had been placed over the words "gay, sexy, healthy."
"It was a little premeditated," she says. "It didn't look like it was something a couple of kids would do quickly."
Koehlinger says that unlike the phrase, the image of a man holding a condom was not covered.
"It's not like someone is going after the condom," Koehlinger says. "I suspect people are just uncomfortable with the word 'gay' and the word 'sexy' appearing together in public view. The common misconception is that if you're gay and you're sexy, you must be unhealthy."