Now Reading
‘People Like Us’ – never prouder, never more real

‘People Like Us’ – never prouder, never more real

Chemsex

Just yesterday morning, while I was doing the usual scroll through my Facebook feed, I was alerted to a news article – the Ministry of Health in Singapore had just released, to the media, the annual figures on new HIV cases for the whole of last year. Out of a total of 455 new cases of infections reported among Singapore citizens and permanent residents, 59 per cent of them were transmissions between men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) – homosexual transmission accounted for 51 per cent while bisexual transmission accounted for 8 per cent. 97 per cent of the total number of new HIV cases were acquired through sexual intercourse.

Well, at that instant, I didn’t know what to feel looking at all these data. The data was something one should be worried about, that more MSMs were diagnosed with HIV infections in 2015 than ever before.

Yes, ever before. You heard it right.

Also as a volunteer counsellor at Action for AIDS Singapore (AFA) where I provide weekly counselling services for young at-risk MSMs on sexual health issues, the impact of these results hit me even harder.

I thought, have we failed in our mission? Where have we gone wrong?

Of course, I am certain that the full-time folks at AFA and other volunteers felt the gravity of the situation too – one of them, an avid volunteer, even tagged all of us in a Facebook post with the caption: ‘May the power be with us… let’s not be discouraged by the numbers’.

I spent the rest of the day back at work with occasional mulls over these figures.

Coincidentally (don’t ask me how), last night was also the screening of ‘People Like Us‘ – the first gay online series in Singapore talking about gay men, and gay sex.

But little did I expect the night to have given me the answer to my worries in the morning.

‘People Like Us’, a total of six episodes based on true stories and produced by gayhealth.sg (AFA’s MSM initiative), centres around the lives of four different gay men navigating within the one gay community in Singapore – a country where sex between two men remains, till today, punishable by the law.

PLU EP 3 - Dating,Hookup
Hemant Ashoka (left) plays Rai, one of four main characters in ‘People Like Us’. Photo Credit: Gayhealth.sg

Saunas, gay clubs, ‘chem’ parties, bars, Grindr – you name it, ‘People Like Us’ has it.

The screening, well-attended by donors, allies, activists and members of the gay community, ended off with a Q&A session with some members of the cast as well as the director of the series who was in town for this screening and the coming weekend’s Pink Dot 2016 – Singapore’s biggest LGBTI rally that saw a total of over 28,000 people attend in 2015.

This series, though brief, left a considerably deep impression on me for the night. Besides the fact that this is the first online series on the gay community ever produced, I guess there was something about the series’ authenticity that struck me. The content was as real as it can get – and the audience’s laughter was clear that the content was something they could all identify with. Afterall, in an environment where the gay community has been sidelined and ignored by authorities and other parts of society, wasn’t this how most of us – myself included – grew up understanding our own sexual orientations and gender identities better?

Well, at least in Singapore, this is pretty much the case.

Besides its authenticity, what I liked about ‘People Like Us’ was the provision of an alternative narrative to putting a face to the LGBTI community in Singapore. If one examines the various messages pushed out by Pink Dot in its campaign videos over the past years, he or she or they may actually find it hard to place the portrayed characters of ‘People Like Us’ in them. In other words, the series last night gave its viewers another understanding of the country’s gay community.

And like every community, the gay community is equally diverse in its own way as well.

That is not to say that the work of Pink Dot has not been truthful over the years – it has been, very much. And if one examines closely the themes through this year’s Pink Dot campaign videos, he or she or they will realize that the movement has started to touch on topics such as HIV and sex work – topics that have never been covered in previous years’ videos.

Perhaps if I am to describe the role of ‘People Like Us’ vis-a-vis Pink Dot using just one word, I will probably call it ‘complementary’.

And I thought perhaps, if we as a gay community can understand and recognize the diversity within our own community, we can better end the hostility and discrimination we display even against each other – and come together to address the issues we face within the community, and more importantly the same discrimination all of us face in our workplace, homes, society and laws.

‘People Like Us’ was a life lesson for me on the importance of community. I was further reaffirmed of its presence when I saw tens of gay men sitting around big tables in a Thai restaurant in the building next door – all of them having a late dinner together after watching the series.

Other than the sex, the booze, the drugs – isn’t that also what the gay community is about?

Sure, there will always be some people within the gay community who are out there intentionally trying to harm others within the same community. But last night, I never felt prouder of this community whom I belong to – of its camaraderie and togetherness.

Watch ‘People Like Us’ here.

Darius Zheng is an Asia-Pacific correspondent at GayStarNews who is also a LGBTI activist based in Singapore.