Many Shades of Gay


Ever see an HIV-related outreach campaign and not find yourself or the diversity of your community represented in the photographs or the vernacular of the copy or the overall vibe? Now, you can become a digital poster child for HIV/AIDS awareness by creating your own avatar in all your fabulous complexity, tailored for wherever you go in your social-media travels.

Many Shades of Gay, a new testing and care-services awareness multimedia site, allows you to generate an avatar that’s as adorable as a Rankin-Bass animation and flexible enough so that, as you assemble your physical features and personal style bit by bit from a multitude of options, you are able to see yourself represented. The aim is inclusive: “No matter what you’re into, get an HIV test every six months,” reads the tag line.

The site provides information about HIV and AIDS basics, transmission risk, and testing advice. If you are negative or do not know your status, the site will connect you to testing sites according to your zip code, provide how-to-make-an-appointment information, and send testing reminders to you. If you are positive, the site provides information about living and thriving with HIV, connects you to care and support, and sends check-up reminders. Reminders may be sent via text or electronic calendar synching. The site is completely confidential and on-line privacy is protected.

Launched by San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF), which has a longstanding track record of innovative outreach, and its collaborative partners, Many Shades of Gay encourages gay and bisexual men to test regularly for HIV and make frequent HIV testing the social norm in the community. Along with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, ISIS, Alliance Health Project, Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, Mission Neighborhood Health Center, public and private sector funders, and global advertising agency ATTIK, which provided its services pro bono, SFAF has been heartened by the positive and helpful feedback it has received so far, both in the development phase and its initial roll-out. They hope users also invite their friends across various platforms to join in to help create this new electronic community.

The make-your-own-avatar concept is not simply a way for individuals to empower themselves and their communities to stay on top of their sexual health, but also a way to spotlight the disconnections between self-perception and risk that often arise.

“Part of the genesis of this campaign was a shift in the way that the Department of Public Health and the foundation thought about HIV testing. Previously the recommendation was that gay and bisexual men at ‘high risk’ for HIV infection should test every six months,” notes James Loduca, Vice President of Public Affairs at SFAF. “But here’s the interesting thing about the qualifier ‘high risk’: Not all of us are that great as judges of our own risk profiles and it wasn’t uncommon to see people who would say, ‘I’m in a monogamous relationship, so I’m not at risk,’ or, ‘I’m not an injection drug user, so I’m not at risk’; there was always some sort of reason for some people not to see themselves at risk. If you provide people an opportunity to say, ‘Well, that’s not me—that’s someone else,’ there will always be a portion of the population who sees things that way. What that meant in the context of increasing the frequency with which all HIV-negative men tested frequently in San Francisco was we were missing important opportunities to diagnose new infections and get individuals into care when they get a positive result.”

The revised testing guidelines fueled the starting point for discussions with the ad agency and a core question, says Loduca, bubbled up: “How do we celebrate

A&U's Chael Needle created his own avatar
how diverse we are as a community and how different we are from one another as a community and use that as an opportunity to unify us around an important [practice] that we all need to embrace as a new social norm?”

The campaign is not bound by the city limits of San Francisco. Says Loduca: “One of the things you’ll note is that [the campaign is] open-sourced, which means the Web site doesn’t have our logo all over it. That’s intentional because we want anyone in any geographical region to be able to experience the campaign in a way that feels appropriate for them.”

Adds Loduca: “We recognize that an on-line resource could be used by anyone, anywhere, which is one of the reasons why we worked with our partner at to use their HIV testing site locator because we wanted to make sure that regardless from where the user was visiting the site that they would get accurate, up-to-date information about the testing clinics in their region, whether that’s San Francisco or Raleigh-Durham.”

The campaign’s creators are also open to organizational collaboration. “Our goal with this campaign is to make it accessible to everyone who wants to use it and so if there are agencies or health departments or peer organizations in other parts of the United States or other parts of the world that either want to adopt the campaign or learn from it or leverage the wonderful pro bono efforts of ATTIK to their advantage, we invite them to reach out to us and have those discussions with us because I think the more people that embrace and share this type of work the better off we’re all going to be.”

For more information about the campaign or to create an avatar, visit

July 2012