This year has seen the emergence and widespread popularity of visual social media campaigns that aim to raise awareness as well as collect donations for health causes. Among the most memorable have been the UK Breast Cancer Campaign’s #nomakeupselfie campaign, and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Gay Men Fighting AIDS (GMFA), with #Pants2HIV campaign is the newest of this year’s popular social media campaigns.

GMFA is a UK gay men’s health charity. Founded in 1992, the aim of the charity is to improve gay men’s health by increasing the control they hold over their lives through campaigns and the provision of information. The idea stems from an understanding that health promotion for gay men should come from gay men themselves. To facilitate this understanding, the organization operates through volunteers, of which most are gay men. Working with gay volunteers enables reflection on the challenges that gay men face through the campaigns and information resources produced by the GMFA.

Last week, GMFA started a campaign using the hashtag #Pants2HIV to collect donations for the charity. Participants texted ‘GMFA14’ to 70070, making an average donation of five pounds. The idea was to be photographed wearing pants in any way the participant wishes; however most participants have chosen to strip down to their pants. The campaign is still ongoing.

As an information resource for gay men, there is no government funding pot that the GMFA can apply for. Local authorities are expected to fund HIV prevention on a local basis, but are unlikely to fund the kind of population-level work in which the GMFA specializes. The support of the gay community is needed to help maintain the GMFA’s functions.

In addition to fundraising, the aim of the campaign is to ensure that gay men, of all ages, all races, UK born or not, will able to access frank, honest and clear information. The GMFA aims to achieve this by using #Pants2HIV to raise awareness about health issues and issues gay men face more generally.

A big part of this goal is to change the way HIV prevention is designed and delivered. This is an integral part of helping gay men cope with the challenges they face, and how they value themselves and their sexual health. The GMFA believes that ‘gay men deserve better health, better choices, and great sex’.1

Combating AIDS and supporting its victims are at the center of this goal, given that HIV is among the greatest obstacles facing gay men’s welfare. However, Matthew Hodson, Chief Executive of GMFA, emphasizes that we need to stop seeing HIV as the worst thing that can happen to a gay man. ‘When HIV is seen as the worst thing that can happen to a gay man, we are telling people diagnosed with HIV that there is no longer any need for them to take care of themselves, physically or emotionally’. This widespread attitude has led to an increase in the dread of acquiring HIV. Gay men have become less likely to test, and therefore less likely to access treatment that will extend their lives, as well as decrease the likelihood of infection for their sexual partners.

HIV is becoming more and more of an invisible issue. Those with HIV status are becoming more and more reluctant to disclose their case, given the judgements and rejections they have witnessed previous disclosers receive. This is coupled with the way treatment has succeeded in preventing visible symptoms of HIV, making HIV less and less noticeable by the day. Hodson relates this invisibility to the limited discussion of HIV. ‘When we become unable to talk about HIV, we are unable to have those important health related discussions that can prevent transmission’.

Within GMFA’s aim to change the way HIV prevention is perceived, Hodson identifies the problematic nature of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to HIV treatment. ‘There is no “one-size-fits-all” HIV prevention campaign. The needs of young gay men just coming to terms with their sexuality are going to be completely different from the needs of men in their late-40s, who have lived through the era when there was no effective treatment. HIV prevention needs to recognise the diversity of experience and need within the gay community and respond appropriately’.

The campaign has been highly successful in collecting donations and bringing HIV back on the discussion table, a powerful step towards dispelling stigma around the virus. Access to information provided on the GMFA website has also increased.

However, through the visual imagery it has employed, #Pants2HIV has also provoked interesting discussions about our bodies and the way we feel about them.

‘We didn’t want Pants2HIV to just be about a singular, idealised image of the gay male body. Some of the pictures have been of men with amazing gym-toned abs and pecs but lots of the pictures have been of the kind of men you don’t often see in the gay media and I think that’s been a brilliant aspect of the campaign’, says Hodson. ‘A lot of us struggle to feel good about our bodies or the way that we look. We’ve seen guys who’ve said that they wouldn’t normally publish that kind of photo because they feel self-conscious but then, when they do it, they get lots of really positive feedback’.

However, the messages delivered by the visual campaign have extended beyond the gay community. It has only been one month since the naked celebrity leak provoked a rich debate on the way women’s bodies are seen, represented, and sexualized by culture and media. At a time when women’s naked bodies have been shamed more than ever, the #Pants2HIV campaign has implicitly targeted the stigma around women’s bodies by employing semi-naked male bodies to catch attention. This has extended the #Pants2HIV campaign’s efforts to combat stigma, beyond the gay community, placing it in a more general standpoint against gender stigma.

Finally, Hodson reminds us that stigma does not only hurt people living with HIV, but harms us all. ‘When people talk about HIV as if it were a matter of personal hygiene, or a moral judgement, remind them that HIV is just a virus’.




DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.