Gay online soap opera has a serious message

A young, muscled man named Edgar is flat on his back under a tree, clad only in camouflage-print underwear. The sun is well above the apartment buildings of West Hollywood.

Shawn, a friend, wakes Edgar with a gentle kick. He explains, when it's clear Edgar does not remember, that Edgar brought a date home from a party, then chased him off before passing out in the courtyard.

"What happened?" Shawn asks.

Edgar is in a fog:

"I just. . . ."

"Whore," says Shawn.

"Jealous?" asks Edgar.

From its opening scene, the online soap opera "In the Moment" pulls no punches -- because, its creators say, it cannot. The show, which has drawn tens of thousands of viewers in the last few months, is a racy, unvarnished portrait of gay L.A.

It is also, at its core, about HIV and AIDS.

Recent years have brought a wave of new programs designed to reinvigorate outreach in the gay community, as well as a dialogue about men's sexuality.

There are colorful trucks that take rapid-response HIV testing to the streets. Government-funded "POLs" -- popular opinion leaders -- scour the town for other socially influential gay men and women, give them risk-reduction training and send them back into the community to spread the word. There's even a proposal to design jeans with built-in "condom pockets" to promote the idea that condom use should be a routine part of gay culture, not an afterthought.

But more than anything, said Susan R. Cohen, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's director of health education and prevention, "we needed to be where the guys are" -- on the Internet.

Cohen arrived on the job a year and a half ago; her first order of business was to revamp an outreach program that was still relying largely on "rap groups" to which educators dispensed condoms and safe-sex advice, sometimes with an audience of as few as two or three men. Among other changes, Cohen greenlighted a proposal to film "webisodes" of a drama set in West Hollywood. The city of West Hollywood covered most production costs.

The first episode, posted in January, introduced the multicultural cast in a "Peyton Place"-like apartment building -- including Mike and Steve, who have unprotected sex. In the second episode, posted in March, Shawn scores a date; the new guy who moved in from Minnesota borrows an Internet connection (the password is "handcuffs"); and Steve moves out when he learns Mike cheated on him.

"We live in this city of 10 billion hot guys," Shawn grumbles, "and it's impossible to get close to anybody."

Across the nation, reported diagnoses of HIV and AIDS are increasing again. They are not rising as sharply as they did during the first wave of the epidemic, and there is some contention that the rise is attributable in part to improved data collection. Still, there is no question the numbers are up acutely among young gay men -- enough that some believe a second wave could be underway.

Fear, however, is no longer selling as a prevention tactic.

For years, with marked success, healthcare advocates used "SILENCE = DEATH"-style sloganeering to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS. But many of today's young gays weren't alive during those first, terrible years -- and "didn't grow up watching 15 of their friends die of this disease," said Anthony Contreras, 33, who contracted HIV 12 years ago from a man he met in a West Hollywood club. He is now a health educator.

What's more, today's medicine allows many HIV-positive people to live largely normal, healthy lives.

"I worry about my generation," said Dave O'Brien, 31, the creator of "In the Moment." "There is this perception that HIV is not that big of a deal anymore."

Meanwhile, health advocates say the social-networking system that they have long relied upon to preach the gospel of prevention has fallen apart.

On the surface, West Hollywood looks as it has for years: the medians of Santa Monica Boulevard decorated with rainbow flags, the street lined with gay boutiques and gay theaters, and a gay bookstore offering books on the front table about Julie Andrews and Grace Kelly and one called "Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir."

But many gay bars where prevention specialists used to do their networking are now just bars, marketed to all, and you're as likely to stumble on a bachelorette party as a gay mixer. One gay club recently became a tapas restaurant, another a straight bar that draws starlets and scenesters.

Gay publications, meanwhile, are less reliably read, health advocates say. To young men, many messages plastered on bus stops and billboards are as quaint as the public service announcements they were once forced to watch in health class.

In other words, at a worrisome and vulnerable time, many young gay men aren't thinking much about HIV or AIDS -- and have little communication with the advocates who ought to be reminding them to do so.

"So we've had to find new ways to engage," said James Key, the Gay & Lesbian Center's chief public affairs officer. "Times have changed. And we've had to change with them."

O'Brien, a filmmaker who recently completed a documentary on U.S. colleges that expel gay students, wrote the scripts with real West Hollywood gay men in mind -- men whose lives are not a daily tragedy, even if they are HIV-positive, but can be complicated. The question is not whether they know how to use a condom, he said, but whether they decide to use one once real-world X factors come into play: body image, self-esteem, the dynamics of their relationship.

More than 80,000 people have viewed the shows at Advocates are pushing the show as a portal to discussions about safe sex and relationships, from whether Steve should have moved out when he learned Mike cheated to whether unprotected sex is ever OK. Wrote one viewer:

"It is amazing how much one moment of silence, of inaction, of pleasure, can change your life [be aware]."

Almost everyone who works on the show is a volunteer, including actors who are cast through a formal process akin to that of regular TV programming. The short "webisodes" have a high-quality appearance, propped up by people such as the supportive owner of a crane who charged $50 to allow for the complex overhead shot of Edgar lying under the tree. Each of the two shows completed so far cost just $17,000 to produce.

Most of the money has come from West Hollywood City Hall, which is expected to fund new episodes soon. The show has struggled to land more government money, largely because the federal government is squeamish about funding images deemed "explicit."

That may have a different definition here than it does in Washington. One federal agency recently rejected funding for an ad campaign designed to foster discussion among recovering addicts about sober sexuality. The reason? The campaign showed images of two men kissing; the agency suggested the men hold hands instead.

"So, 27 years into this epidemic, we're still restricted from showing images that would be effective," Cohen said. "That's what we're up against."