It’s difficult to argue that West Hollywood’s reputation as a hedonistic mecca for gay men isn’t well deserved.
Southern California sunshine, a Hollywood emphasis on beautiful bodies, an abundance of nightlife and a liberated existence not seen in all parts of the U.S. add up to a quite a party.
These facts, coupled with a new generation of gay men who didn’t come of age seeing their friends dying of AIDS, add up to HIV and STD infections reaching epidemic proportions.
It presents a huge challenge. How do you reach a young group who can be among the funniest, campiest and wittiest folks on the planet with messages about safer sex?
Not with dry lectures about condom use, public health experts have learned. Instead, the city of West Hollywood has funded a website, www.WeHoLife.org. The site uses lighthearted cartoons (“gaymation,” as its creators call it), popular drag queen Miss Coco Peru and even two adult entertainment stars, Diego Sans and Travis James.
The hope is that these entertaining videos, implanted with subtle safe sex messages, will go viral and get STDs in check in the process.
“The thinking was what can we do to bring in more people in a way that doesn’t ostracize them but meets them where they’re at,” said Brett Holland, a health education specialist at Los Angeles LGBT center and one of the masterminds behind the videos.
Holland, a Southern California native who also is an actor, writer and producer, helped brainstorm “You’ve Got 72 Hours, Girl! // Peppy PEP Song.” In the video — which is loaded with silly, risqué references — cartoon characters sing a song about gay life in West Hollywood and what it’s like to freak out after having sex without a condom.
The message? Go get PEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis. PEP is a pill that can help prevent HIV if taken immediately after infection. It is available through the center.
“Everybody’s asking about this P-E-P,” the catchy tune goes. “It’s not a brand new Gaga song or sexy ‘Drag Race’ queen.”
In another cartoon, WeHo men transform themselves into “Fabulous Fruits” to battle the devilish “Evil Syphilis,” who appears and infects revelers who had unprotected sex.
“Oh honey, we’ve got to get you penicillin before the infection does permanent damage to your insides!” warns a character named “Queen Berry.” At the end of the video, a “bear cub” (slang for a young gay man who is stocky and hairy) reminds everyone that condoms are the best way to prevent syphilis.
Holland noted that the videos try to represent an assortment of gay men. “West Hollywood can be segregated and not all-inclusive and in fact very exclusive,” Holland said.
Darnell Green, a program manager at the center, called HIV and STD rates in the city “alarming.”
The hope is that the provocative videos will even get hard-to-reach groups, including drug users, minorities and transgender people, into the center for testing and treatment. The center is publicizing the videos using the gay dating app Grindr as well as on social media outlets such as Instagram.
-By David Heitz, Brand Publishing Writer