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TV soaps and a load of old flannel

Blaming tolerance for HIV reeks of a government committee playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey

Life gets a little weird here in the Land of Smiles at times, and that's not a reference to the queues that currently stretch from Don Mueang to Suvarnabhumi airports. I'm talking about the comments made by the deputy governor of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration -- that giant, dusty machine that runs the city despite having its head lopped off last year with a Section 44 order citing corruption and ineffective administration.

The BMA received a budget to help impoverished HIV-positive people with antiretroviral drugs. At the press conference to announce this 10.8 million baht budget, deputy governor Thaweesak Lertprapan announced that the risk of HIV infection among gay males was higher than other at-risk groups.

This is because Bangkok gay males were undereducated about HIV transmission. Another problem, he said, was Thailand's tolerance of same-sex relationships. The more tolerant Thais were, the higher risk of infection.

There were more and more gays appearing in TV soaps, for instance, which led to higher HIV infection rates.

That last sentence sounds like something out of a question on a bar examination which tests your ability to follow a sequence logically. Do you get where Mr Thaweesak is coming from, dear reader? You do? Good. You are clearly at an IQ level beyond the realm of my own.

I despise news stories such as these, for they lead to a gross waste of time on my behalf. All productivity for an hour goes to the wind as I locate the link to the story then forward it on to international friends for their enjoyment, thus taking me away from valuable work time.

Blaming tolerance for HIV? Is that Mr Thaweesak's personal view or did a committee think that up? It reeks of a government committee playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey.

If indeed tolerance is the mitigating factor in a rise in HIV transmission, then one wonders what the next move will be. Banning tolerance? Perhaps they will limit public displays of tolerance to certain hours, such as 11am to 2pm, then from 5pm to midnight, in an effort to curb the risk of HIV infection. I needed to know if soaps were really to blame, so last Wednesday night I sacrificed a few hours of my time. I switched on TV dramas to see if watching them would increase my risk of having unprotected sex.

Thai soap operas begin right after the royal news, around 8.20pm, and run through until about 10.20. This in itself is worrisome, for as we know, watching a one-hour episode of any Western soap is the equivalent of undergoing a temporary lobotomy, or subjecting oneself to opiate without the hassle of having to meet that shady Nana Plaza drug dealer. Imagine doing that for two hours on a nightly basis.

There are soaps running on any given night on four free-to-air channels and at least another six digital channels, according to my research. That's 10 replicas of a soap opera template being broadcast every night, Monday to Friday, and believe me, they're interchangeable.

Last Wednesday I settled down in my armchair with the TV remote in my right hand and a tonic drink in my left.

First of all, something worrisome -- I couldn't find any gay characters. I exclude the one-dimensional circus clowns that represent Thailand's transgenders that dot all the dramas. These squealing, mincing, gaily coloured characters were there more to give the sound effects editor something to do, since they were invariably accompanied by "boings" and "whoop whoop whoops" and ascending and descending whistles every time they moved or opened her mouth.

"Why the need for all those noises?" I asked a visiting Thai seated on a nearby sofa.

(And yes, I had warned him ahead of time that sitting so close to me during my research was risky, since if what the deputy governor said was true, I may be prone to jump on him and have sex. Perhaps that was why he brought his wife along as well.)

"It's funny!" he said as his wife giggled next to him. "It makes it even funnier."

I quickly launched into a theory that the boings and whoop whoop whoops were really just signposts telling the audience when to laugh, since the audience was clearly too lobotomised or opiated to make that value judgment for themselves. Neither my Thai friend nor his wife seemed to understand my theory, which one could argue proves it to be true. But we are off on a tangent.

The same transgendered character was employed in the more serious soaps, though without the bells and whistles. One was in charge of an advertising agency. Another had something to do with a beauty competition. Again, the stereotypes were so blatant they were more demeaning than promoting tolerance, let alone sexual promiscuity as alleged by the deputy governor.

By the time the soaps came to an end and I fumbled clumsily for the remote (it was two hours, remember -- that's a lot of tonic drinks) I had no inexplicable urge to have unprotected sex with either occupant of the sofa. There was an urge to have one final tonic drink, but I fought that.

I admit my channel surfing made it difficult for me to ascertain whether any of the male characters not wearing wigs and dresses were homosexual. It did make me wonder: Would undereducated gay teens watching a gay character turn them homosexual? By this logic, we should have a nation of bitch-slapping females, since that behaviour appeared in just about every soap I saw last Wednesday even in channel-surfing mode.

So let's discard that nonsense and concentrate on the more insidious claim -- that society's tolerance of all things homosexual leads to a rise in HIV infection.

Kids, if you're reading this, make no mistake: tolerance does not lead to disease. A lack of education certainly does, yes, but that is the domain of governments, like the BMA, to ensure there is enough information disseminated about HIV.

So while a 10.8 million baht budget for medicine is good, how much is the budget for educating young Thais on the dangers of unprotected sex?

Alas, such campaigns are confined to the low-rating government channels. In the two hours I endured those soaps, I also endured a barrage of ads telling me how I could whiten my skin, look good with my mobile phone device, and how much fun I'd have by eating at various American fast food restaurants around town. Not once was there mention of educating youth about HIV infection.

Let's give Mr Thaweesak the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume he was misquoted, or something went awry in the translation, though the same message was conveyed in the Thai media the following day. It is way too dangerous to push the line that tolerance and acceptance of alternative lifestyles is a negative influence on combating disease. If we are going to blame tolerance of gays for rising HIV rates, then we may as well blame transgenders for the Don Mueang queues, lesbians for traffic jams, and those non-binary folk for falling rubber prices.

Go on, Mr Thaweesak. I may never be able to get my two hours back from testing your argument, but you can at least admit your mistake. We'll forgive you. Otherwise you run the risk of finding undereducated folk not just among gay teens but under your nose as well. n

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