These aren’t your mother’s HIV-prevention messages…unless, of course, your mother is a sassy, redheaded drag star.
That drag star would be Miss Coco Peru (Girls Will Be Girls, Trick), who is featured in one of the most popular short videos produced by the recently re-launched WehoLife.org. The video’s “Mother Knows Best” opening credits beckon to 1950s-era family sitcoms—but when the teenage son seeks her advice, the video’s edgy side is quickly revealed. (That’s assuming you weren’t tipped off by the video’s YouTube description, “Five rules for a joyful, good …” well, the last word can’t be printed here, but suffice it to say, it isn’t “relationship.”)
In the video, the son is smitten with a guy he’s thinking could be “the one”—not for marriage but for his first foray into anal sex. Ignoring her son’s squeamishness, Peru relishes doling out frank advice along with a gallon-sized bottle of lube.
“I love talking anal,” she says. “Brings back memories.”
WehoLife, a Los Angeles LGBT Center-managed program funded largely by the city of West Hollywood (aka WeHo), has been talking sex on the Web for years in the name of HIV prevention. Initially an online resource page (where to get tested, where to get condoms), the WehoLife.org website took “a leap in a whole different direction,” as David Giugni, social services manager for the city of West Hollywood said, with the 2008 debut of In the Moment.
In the Moment, which wrapped up its fifth and final season in June 2013, was an ongoing on-line soap opera about several young gay men in West Hollywood, a famous enclave for people who are LGBT (mostly G—lesbians and bisexual women comprise just five percent of the population, while gay and bisexual men represent forty-one percent).
The Center touted In the Moment (still viewable at WehoLife.org) as “steamy.” With storylines about dating, unprotected sex and infidelity, the series didn’t shy away from racy content.
And yet the latest WehoLife videos—the ones released since the re-launch this June—have a sensibility that seems to take it a step further yet. Not only is the language explicit, but the tone is overtly sexy and often, considering the seriousness of the root subject matter, surprisingly playful.
Two “porn studs” (Diego Sans and Travis James) strip one clothing item at a time as visitors to WehoLife.org answer survey questions. (They don’t go full Monty, but they don’t have a lot covered up at the end of the survey video either.)
A cast of animated characters sings about post-exposure prophylaxes. P-E-P, it prevents H-I-V. We’ve got 72 hours for this emergency…
The “Fabulous Fruits,” a shape-shifting team of superheroes, hit the streets of WeHo to fight the evil of syphilis in another “gaymation” video.
“No one wants to see a sore penis,” said Brett Holland, who manages the WehoLife program. “If you make a cute cartoon and make a story that’s entertaining…you’re not only entertaining, you’re spreading a message.”
The edginess of the videos was cultivated deliberately. Explicitly sexual content has been shown effective at getting more people involved in discussions about HIV prevention, said Holland, who cited Australia’s “Protection” campaign.
And the subtlety of the messaging is strategic, too. You’re not likely to see someone in a WehoLife video come right out and say, “You should always use condoms” or “Don’t have unprotected sex.”
“No one likes to be told what to do,” Holland said. He wants to bring more people into the discussion to have fun and, at the same time, send prevention messages “without banging people over the head.”
“And I think it’s working,” he said. “The community is listening.”
Drag queens, porn stars, stripteases, animated fruit, profanity, sexual slang…a city government is paying for this?
It can be tricky, Giugni acknowledged, to walk the line of just what a city-funded initiative can get away with. But he said the tactics have support from the City Council. Notably, WeHo’s five-member council includes two of the nation’s few openly HIV-positive elected officials, John Duran and Mayor John D’Amico.
“Council is willing to take the risk,” Giugni said. “They understand what the message is and the importance of the messaging….[It’s] a priority for this community that we are going to be cutting-edge and doing everything we can…to get that message out.”
West Hollywood is “a very open city in trying new things,” Holland said. It’s also a city that’s deeply affected by HIV, with about seven percent of residents being HIV-positive (per a community study released in 2013). The city incorporated in 1984, not long after the HIV/AIDS epidemic began, and it banned discrimination based on HIV status (as well as sexual orientation) the following year. Also, in 1984, it partnered with AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) and the Center on a campaign promoting the use of condoms.
“The city was engaged from the beginning with prevention and education,” said Corey Roskin, a social services specialist with the city of WeHo. “It always has been a priority.”
Roskin noted that WeHo funds direct HIV services via service agencies (such as Being Alive, the Sabon Community Clinic, Aid for AIDS, APLA and the LGBT Center) in addition to its prevention efforts.
“There’s really a full spectrum,” he said.
Holland, who has experience with theater/TV acting as well as playwriting, serves as creator or co-creator for WehoLife videos and as writer or co-writer for at least the majority of them. He lines up a “genius team” of contractors for filming and production, and he includes in the script process subject matter experts.
That subject matter isn’t narrowly focused on HIV/AIDS and STDs. HIV prevention is a complicated topic, Holland said. It’s about why people make choices. Drugs and alcohol can affect those choices. So can isolation, depression and a host of other factors.
WehoLife videos touch on some of those factors. One recent video, for example, imagines a television shopping channel dealing in meth, a drug that’s prevalent among gay and bisexual men and that’s highly correlated with unsafe sex and HIV transmission. Continuing to cast people with established followings, that video features Drew Droege (known for his YouTube videos in which he impersonates actress Chloe Sevigny) and Jeffery Self (whose credits include the LOGO sketch show Jeffery & Cole Casserole).
Holland is also planning an ongoing web series that focuses on alcohol and its possible effects—both funny and serious.
WeHo is a mostly white city as far as residents go—but it’s a go-to nightlife destination for men from all over the L.A. area, and they’re not all the young, muscled gay types that embody what Holland calls the “WeHo aesthetic.” Holland said he’s out to reflect diverse viewpoints in WehoLife videos, two of which have highlighted the lives of transgender women.
“We’re here for everyone,” Holland said. “Everyone has a place, and everyone’s part of our community.”
Stevie St. John previously worked for five years in the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s marketing and communications department and has done freelance work for the Center since leaving at the end of 2012.
Stevie St. John is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, where she serves on the board of the local chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA-LA).