USAID LINKAGES Project Produces Gay OK Bangkok, a Thai Web Series about Living with HIV

Two best friends in the series, Arm and Pom, discussing whether or not they should get tested for HIV.
Two best friends in the series, Arm and Pom, discussing whether or not they should get tested for HIV.
Photo Credit: Trasher Bangkok
Series mixes health messaging with soap opera storylines about love, trust and HIV
"Wow, the message at the beginning is powerful! It was on point. In general, everyone male, female, transgender, alternative, pansexual, trisexual and/or bi-curious (anyone) should get tested. Everyone should know their STD/HIV status." – MillaRaeDeshibeau, via Facebook

May 2016—Social media is not only a means for men who have sex with men to find friends and sexual partners, but also is an important driver of the sexual norms that influence HIV risk among these men. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, funded LINKAGES Thailand project is targeting these norms through an innovative web series, Gay OK Bangkok, which drew more than 60,000 viewers in March with a soapy story of love, trust and HIV.

Gay OK Bangkok was developed by the Asia-Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM), a LINKAGES Thailand implementing partner. The series is part of their ongoing TestBKK campaign, which seeks to generate demand for HIV testing services for men who have sex with men in Bangkok and around Thailand. The five-part web series focuses on the relationship trials and tribulations of a group of young, gay men living in Bangkok. It weaves a number of health issues into its storylines, including HIV testing, treatment, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Episodes are linked to the TestBKK website, where viewers can gain more information.

Ben and Nat, two characters in the series, hug after Nat receives the result of his first HIV test.
Ben and Nat, two characters in the series, hug after Nat receives the result of his first HIV test.
Photo Credit: Trasher Bangkok

In a groundbreaking step for Thai entertainment, well-known Thai soap opera actor Kanist Piyapaphakornkoon was cast as Nat, a handsome and popular gay man who reveals early in the series that he is HIV positive. Piyapaphakornkoon was initially concerned about being identified as a gay character, as he was not sure how it would be received by audiences, and he knew very little about HIV before this role. However, he was convinced by the commitment of the production team and the opportunity to portray the gay community in a positive light.

"I stopped worrying, as I thought I am doing useful work for the society and can at least present other perspectives of gay life – rather than being a sad character as commonly presented in the media, or as a comic role," Piyapaphakornkoon explained. "I hope my role can represent many aspects of gay life."

Between March and April 2016, the five Gay OK Bangkok videos received more than 600,000 views, over a 1,000 percent increase in TestBKK YouTube subscribers since the series launch and more than 12,000 likes, shares, and comments via YouTube and Facebook.

Fans seemed to particularly appreciate the realistic portrayals of life for a young, gay, Thai man. One fan in particular, Charnwit Pakam, commented that "these are real situations that are happening these days," and went on to explain that he uses the show to advise friends going through similar situations. It was equally important to audiences that the relationship between an HIV-positive person and his HIV-negative partner be handled sensitively, as this topic is rarely portrayed in Thai media. One viewer wrote on Facebook, "Serodiscordant relationships exist, and there are many relationships as such in society. I'm happy that Arm can accept Nat. There are [a lot of] information out there on methods to protect ourselves, and PrEP is one of the options. This is nicely done GAY OK!"

From February 20 to April 1, 2016, when the Gay OK Bangkok episodes were launched, there were 67,582 visitors to TestBKK.org, a nearly 4,000 percent increase over the previous period. Links from the episodes to the web pages on "PrEP" and "Where to Get Tested" have been the most popular, and website visitors ordering condoms and lubricant online increased 700 percent during the campaign. With the final episode of GAY OK Bangkok having aired, LINKAGES is working with APCOM and Mahidol University to design a study that tracks the impact of Gay OK Bangkok and other TestBKK activities on the uptake of HIV testing and other intermediary variables, such as discussing HIV testing with a friend or partner. In the meantime, audiences online seem to be getting the point: "Wow, the message at the beginning is powerful! It was on point. In general, everyone male, female, transgender, alternative, pansexual, trisexual and/or bi-curious (anyone) should get tested. Everyone should know their STD/HIV status."

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Last updated: March 09, 2017

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