“These kids just need a platform to get their views across”. These were some of the words amongst the many spoken by Christopher Whitfield on another blazing day in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Over what can only be described as typical Thai fare, brownies and ice tea, Christopher explained to me why he, a photographer from Portland, Oregon, was attempting to work with college students from Chiang Mai. Being a representative of Art Relief International (ARI) he has been sent to Thailand to specifically address some of the issues the gay community face here. Over the last few years the MSM (men having sex with men) group, including transgenders and sex workers, have become increasingly accepted amongst society here. However there are still many difficulties faced by those living at home with families and those who may have been diagnosed with HIV. Stigma and the pain that comes with it still exist even with the continued efforts of MPlus+, an NGO based in Chiang Mai specifically dealing with HIV awareness and the rights of the MSM and gay community.
Working at MPlus+ has allowed me to personally see what Christopher, ARI and Mplus+ have been doing to address some of these issues. Earlier this year, ARI approached MPlus+ in the hope of using the creative arts to work on the issues faced by the gay community in Chiang Mai. Last week I sat in on a session where this collaboration was encouraging local college kids to let their creative juices flow. By using storyboards, a translator and Christopher’s eye for imagery, the students came up with a film idea expressing what the young face, even by just being suspected of being gay and not fitting in with the norm. The story revolved around a boy picking up a flower amongst the thousands in a park, smelling it and continuing to hold it. This is construed to be ‘atypical’ behaviour for a male by the child’s parents and he is subsequently beaten with a wooden cane. I will not reveal anymore in regards to the film, as you shall have to see it online, however, the message is clear; even simple gestures that in an ideal society would mean nothing, can mean a lot here.
This film is addressing ‘acceptance’ and this is an incredibly important issue if Mplus+ is to succeed in aiding the gay community and also spreading HIV awareness. With the cogs turning in terms of keeping mobile HIV clinics maintained, awareness programmes going and fundraising concerts started, all it takes is the non-acceptance of this community to introduce a painfully large spanner in the works. This highlights the need to work on the rights of the MSM/gay community while increasing HIV awareness, simultaneously. One cannot work without the other.
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