“I’m an architect. I adore Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I am planning my dream trip to Mexico. I love masala dosa. Why can’t I tell you I have HIV?”
These words, displayed on a poster featuring South Asian men and women laughing and having a good time at a pub, are part of a new media campaign by the Alliance For South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP).
ASAAP media coordinator Firdaus Ali says the purpose of the print ads, TV commercials and transit posters is to gain “acceptance for gay men and MSMs [men who have sex with men] within the South Asian community.”
Ali says that as a whole the South Asian community is still conservative and in denial about gay people and MSMs, choosing to believe that it’s just “out there in white man’s land somewhere.” The campaign is tame with no explicit visuals, so that the thought of mansex is presented in an “Oh, by the way” style. Instead, many ads have a focus on food, an important part of South Asian culture, says Ali.
The posters are in subway stations across Toronto, though there is a plan to expand them to York Region Transit and GO Transit as well as Mississauga and Brampton.
The commercials have aired on OMNI 2 and were timed to coincide with Bollywood movies on the weekends and South Asian news during the week.
Ali says the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive; only one negative call has been received. The complainant says he was offended by a poster which he viewed in the company of his 12-year-old son. But Ali doesn’t take it as a knock against the campaign.
“It made him think, it made him aware, it opened dialogue,” she says.
Viewers are encouraged to contact ASAAP and Dosti, a monthly social group for South Asian gay men and MSMs. Ali says that when Dosti (which means friendship in Hindi) started a couple of years ago there were only a handful of members, but now there are more than 100.
The campaigns were developed with the help of a committee composed of filmmakers, writers, artists and others. The actors in the commercials and photos are volunteers; the only professional involved was Indo-Canadian filmmaker Sunil Kalia.
“It was a challenge to get actors to play the role of gay men due to the stigma,” says Ali.
The project is backed by the Public Health Agency Of Canada, which granted $90,000 over two years to develop and implement the campaign. In December 2005, the AIDS Bureau granted ASAAP an additional $50,000 annually to employ a full-time outreach coordinator.