Young key populations leading the HIV response in Asia

(The views and opinions expressed in interviews or commentaries are those of the interviewees and contributors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNAIDS)

Lieu Anh Vu is the new Health and Innovation Strategist for Asia for Hornet, a gay dating application with a cause. The application with about fifteen million users has recently invested in a new bid to use the application to aid the HIV movement. On the occasion of the International Youth Day this year, UNAIDS speaks to an inspirational young gay man who has turned his passion for the greater good into a successful career.

UNAIDS: Please tell us a little bit about the work you do at Hornet. What made you decide to work with Hornet?

I mainly run interventions so that the gay community can use the app to know more about HIV testing and other HIV services. Gay men don’t meet new guys outside as much as they do online anymore, they don’t meet at bars or malls, people begin dating online. I have worked for HIV and Human Rights issues for a few years now, for different civil society organisations and also the UN. I realized that the online space has become very important to mobilize and reach LGBTI people. The opportunity came when I met the CEO of Hornet, we talked and I realized that I could use this app engage the gay community in an exciting and entertaining way while shedding light on HIV issues.

UNAIDS: Hornet has recently invested in gay men’s health- please tell us about that.

Vu: We don’t only want to create a fun space for gay men to meet each other. We also want to create a space where people could learn about HIV, know their status and understand their options when it comes to HIV prevention. Hornet was the first dating app to bring out a feature where a user could choose to disclose their HIV status, so people could openly discuss about their HIV status before they engaged in sex. It also comes with a reminder that it is time to get tested or re-tested. We use secure systems to ensure that user information is confidential. The most recent health initiative that we launched is “#BlueRibbonBoys” – an initiative to raise awareness of gay men online about HIV treatment and prevention topics, such as the importance of getting treated early upon their diagnosis as positive, or different tools they can use, including PrEP, to prevent HIV if they are negative. A lot of people are afraid to seek information about PrEP because they are afraid of being a victim of slut-shaming. We want people to understand that protecting their health is a new lifestyle that should be adopted.

UNAIDS: As a gay man, what would you say are the greatest challenges that you’ve faced living in the region?

Vu : The first challenge I would say is the heteronormative environment that we live in. The assumption that you are straight is very difficult to grow up with. It’s not offensive, but it’s a little uncomfortable. There’s an idea of normalcy. The pressure to conform to gender norms – grow up, have a girlfriend, get married, have children and so on . In an environment like that, coming out is not a one time event. You spend your whole life coming out many many times in different situations and to different people.

10917392_10204977149922536_833779349734287277_nAnother challenge is the lack of services for gender and sexual minorities. People don’t even know that the gender and sexual minorities exist so they don’t even think of providing services to us. For example, LGBTI people usually grow up enduring a lot of stress due to hiding themselves in the closet, or facing discrimination; but it’s almost impossible to find mental health support for LGBTI people where I’m from. As for sexual health and wellbeing, there is no information that is normally put out openly to educate us about it.

UNAIDS: What made you want to work for the health and wellness of gay men?

Vu: As a young gay man growing up in Asia, I understand the struggles and of our community. I wanted to make things better for us all. Initially I started off just volunteering in different LGBTI activities and events as a student. Eventually, I was offered a full time job. It was a great opportunity to turn my passion and purpose into a full time job. I loved what I was doing, at the same time I felt very lucky to be put in a position where I could contribute to social changes, to equality and rights of my people and myself. And I have never stopped ever since.

UNAIDS: As a member of the key populations, you are at the heart of the HIV response. How important do you think it is for key population members to lead the response?

Vu: It is very very important. I was at a point in life where I knew nothing, I was so vulnerable. There is a need for key population members to have the right information, the right knowledge and the right tools in their hands. How can a couple of policy makers who are not gay talk about intervention in the gay community? It would never work.

UNAIDS: What needs to change?

In many countries in Asia, funding for key population mainly comes from outside the region with very little domestic investments. The HIV epidemic in the region is a domestic issue, we need to rely on sustainable, domestic solutions. This issue has been discussed many times in our region but change has been slow and we can’t risk seeing people dying just because there is a lack of funding to support key communities.

There is a need to decriminalize key populations and eliminate stigma and discrimination. It starts with recognition and identifying their specific needs.

UNAIDS:Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Vu: I’m enjoying what I’m doing. As long as I feel like I am contributing to society, learning new things and improving my skills, I am happy to continue in my work. I do face some challenges in my work where I feel like I need more technical knowledge to solve them. So I want to continue educating myself to be able to do my bit and do more.  I see myself as a more experienced, more knowledgeable advocate.

UNAIDS:You have achieved so much at such a young age, as you continue to be an inspiration to the youth of today, what message would you like to leave with them?

Vu: A lot of people are pulled back from what they want to do because they are afraid of being judged. My message would be – don’t let how society judges you be a barrier to who you are and what you want to do. Go for it, do whatever you want, age is not a barrier. Use your youth as an advantage and go out there and do whatever you want to do. Young people are the force of change. The world needs you, go conquer it!

Photos by: Andrey Tran/Youth Voices Count

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