SHOWCASE October 12, 2016

Gayhealth.sg Raising HIV Awareness among Singaporean Gay Men through a Webseries

There are more and more gay webseries popping up on the wordwide web. Among them are those who aim to promote sexual health protection among young gay men – a demography that’s often left behind by the country’s healthcare system. While  Thailands has TestBKK‘s “GayOK Bangkok“, Singapore has “People Like Us” as part of Gayhealth.sg‘s HIV awareness and sexual health outreach program. The mini-dramas, all under 10 minutes long, follow four men as they negotiate dating, sex, and being gay men in Singapore.

The overwhelmingly positive reviews of the series clearly demonstrate their popularity, and People Like Us’ ability to resonate with its target audience of young, gay Singaporeans – and internationally as well.

“Right now, People Like Us is going through the festivals. We have been nominated for a number of awards,” explains Daniel Le, the manager at Gayhealth.sg and a seasoned champion of health promotion within the MSM community in Singapore and his native Toronto.

“It is inspiring and rewarding to find out that the show is popular around the world,” he said proudly.  “I think that ‘hope’ is the primary message we wanted to get across.” People Like Us shows the lows, and highs, of the lives of the four men, and it doesn’t shy away from touchy topics such as chem-sex, saunas, or race.

people-like-us-characters

“We wanted to make it situational, how to handle things,” says Daniel, and as such nothing was off-limits, in order to “bring an added touch of realism.”

“Riding on this momentum, the voices of the youth, it gives hope, that there is light along this path.”

“The gay-rights movement took off in other countries some 20 years ago, but the going has been heavier here, but people want the same thing around the world. The freedom to love,” he says. But long-running gay advocacy and campaigning under the title “the pink dot,” has been recently seeing very positive success.  

“It’s been slow, but has recently made some very significant progress,” he says, noting that a recent picnic had brought 25,000 people together in public support of gay rights.

“Right now it’s like looking at the Grand Canyon for the first time,” Daniel explains. After so long in the desert, the beauty of a more gay-friendly Singapore is now a visible reality.

The rise of smartphone apps has made dating — or at least hooking up — much easier than it once was, but also means that sharing content online has allowed for more creative, or even legal ways to spread awareness.

screenshot-2016-10-12-17-12-00

“90 percent of young people have smartphones, and MSM are using apps a lot,” he says. “If you are not on Jack’d, you are on Grinder,” with Tinder increasingly being used as a “less slutty” alternative.

“It is amazing they have this resource. Before, people had to meet in parks, saunas or in pubs and bars…. By having a miniseries on the web, it will reach more people.”

He explained that having People Like Us as a web series was primarily about reaching the tech-savvy, smartphone-wielding young gay community, rather than circumventing the country’s ban on the “promotion or glamorization of homosexual lifestyle” on television, although that was, of course, part of the decision.

“TV here is heavily regulated, and we would not have been able to show it otherwise.”  

It is not just on TV where homosexuality runs afoul of the law. Male homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore, although laws are rarely enforced.

“Holding hands won’t get you jail time,” says Daniel. However, the effect of the law is more physiological, he says, making gay men more reluctant to come out, and harder for support organisations to administer health advice and information.

“Conservative cultural values mean that many are reluctant to talking about men’s health, and especially HIV, and one way to address this was by airing the miniseries,” says Daniel.

“In the west, shows like Queer as Folk have helped to promote, even “glamorize” the gay lifestyle, but they haven’t always focused on the health considerations. So in Singapore, when it comes to HIV awareness, it’s always been from an outside perspective, looking to the US or Europe or Australia.”

“We wanted to create our own effort that deals with the specific issues in Singapore,” he says, including local slang terms. Indeed, the title for the show is code for being gay, Daniel explained.

“’Oh, he is People Like Us’ is a common phrase here…. The show allowed us to tap into the local content, how do they socialize, how to do young boys do things differently.”

One example is with Singapore’s compulsory male two-year national service – usually served in the armed forces – during which 18-year-olds are able to experience new freedoms, “and, for gay boys, this might be the first time they are able to be more comfortable,” explains Daniel.

“’Oh, he is People Like Us’ is a common phrase here…. The show allowed us to tap into the local content, how do they socialize, how to do young boys do things differently.”

“I lived near a military base when I first arrived, and a lot of the online conversations were from younger boys looking for older guys with a place.”

“There is a very low HIV understanding… right now the education system is failing, as it only deals with heterosexual relations. There is no gay context whatsoever.”

People Like Us aims to promote a healthy gay lifestyle, but this doesn’t dominate the shows.   

The show didn’t want to destroy its creative aspect of the webseries by being preachy. As such, the strongest pro-testing messages come in short segments at the end of each episode, where Daniel, alongside his fellow Gayhealth.sg colleagues Alex and Avin, discuss the topics covered, and the availability of testing. 

gayhealth-sg-fellows

the commendable GayHealth.sg fellows

There are about 200 gay men who have tested positive in Singapore according to the Ministry of Health – a number that is steady but in a small community one that is still high. Most of them are not people in their 50s, but people in their 20s, testing positive out of the army.

hiv-chartWith traditional testing costing up to $90, one problem that gayhealth.sg is trying to overcome is that of people only seeking help once symptoms appear. Their Pink Carpet Network offers free tests, three times a week, for those under 29, and since 2014 more than 800 men have taken advantage of the service.

If People Like Us encourage more men to get tested, then the show has been a success, and worth all the effort it took to get off the ground, says Daniel.

“Season 1 was a headache to create,” he says, laughing. Sourcing funding was the hardest part, but so was including all of the important issues they wanted, into each short episode.  

“I have to commend the production people. We are very proud of them and they were amazing people to work with. They understood the issues, and had friends with the issues,” he says, which aided the series’ realism.

Many of the comments left on the gayhealth.sg website about the show enthusiastically call for a second season to be made. Citing funding stresses — crowdfunding presenting a possible community centered option — Daniel takes a more measured tone.

“Yeah, Season 2, we will see.”