It didn’t take very long. Only two weeks after testing positive for HIV in September, Acep Saepudin, needed to talk about it.
So, in early October, the 23- year- old, who hopes to graduate next year with a degree in international relations,at the Syarif Hidayatullah National Islamic University in Jakarta, uploaded his first video onto YouTube. On it he told the world he tested positive for HIV, at one point in the during the 14 minute clip showing the camera a copy of his results.
“My CD4 is below normal,” he explains referring to the white blood cells that contribute to a body’s immunity.
Initially Acep intended the effort as a personal diary. But that video and the five that have followed have found a wide audience with a combined 2 million views.
Acep’s channel posted under the handle, Acep Gates, in honour of his hero Bill Gates in part for his philanthropic work in Africa, has more than 26,000 subscribers.
“I’m an expressive person,” Acep says.
“When I can’t express myself I can’t be happy.”
Bookish, slender and flush with the idealism of youth Acepis determined to slay long held taboos here about HIV. Outreach focuses on HIV prevention or clinical care, hesays. Acep hopes to create a forum for those who live in secret with the virus, many of whom, like him, are gay.
“I’m tired of hiding myself. In Indonesia we think HIV or LGBT is taboo and not important to talk about,” Acep said.
“I want to say, that HIV especially, is really important to talk about. People think it’s the end of their lives. It’s not.”
Indonesia clocked up more than 46,000 new infections last year. Most of these are among straight people, though among young gay men in parts of Bali or Jakarta the infection rate is as high as one in three, according to UNAIDS.
Acep’s efforts mean that he is often the first person some people have turned to after learning they are positive. His Instagram account, with 12,000 followers, advertises a support group he is organizing for those living with HIV to mark World Aids Day on December 1.
“Usually people only hear about HIV from doctors,” Acepsays. “With me they can talk to someone else who is living with it.”
Acep’s activism is the result of bout of soul searching, which preceded his testing positive. A break-up with his boyfriend in last December triggered a tug o’ war between his sexuality and his faith, he says. Was he destined to a life of loneliness because he was gay, he wondered?
The professional council he sought during that journeyranged from hostile to mostly benign. One doctor suggested Acep had no place in Indonesia. A Muslim cleric said he nothing to worry about – probably.
“He said: ‘maybe just pray once to ask God to change you.’”
Acep’s conclusion? Entrance into heaven – a preoccupation for him -- hinges on deeds not sexuality.
“My God is very wise,” Acep declares.
“God doesn’t promise heterosexuals that they can go to heaven because they are heterosexual. It depends on their deeds. Why is it different for me? Just because I am gay why must I go to hell? He knows what I’ve done.”
Amazingly, Acep’s family, who hail from the conservative regency of Cianjur, is supportive. His parents, who have not finished school, appear in one of his videos.
“You don’t need high education to be open minded,” Acepdeclares in the video, where he is bookended by his beaming parents, who appear to be watching themselves in the monitor.
Devout Muslims, Acep’s parents only asked that he not abandon his faith.
“I asked them what they would think if I married a man,” Acep said.
“They said: ‘maybe just don’t tell many people.’”
The support at home contrasts with comments on his YouTube, which after initially encouraging, are have become increasingly toxic.
“You are gay and you are promoting LGBT,” read one.
”You were healthy but now you are infected.”
Another zeroed in on his parents.
“I cry for your parents. I pray my child doesn’t get HIV,” the comment read.
Acep’s openness also spells trouble on hookup sites where he claims to be equally transparent about his status. News that he is HIV positive can derail a promising chat, he says.Still, he says, he isn’t tempted to fib as most do.
“I feel guilty if I don’t tell them.”
That thoughtfulness contrasts with the brutality meted out in recent days to sexual minorities.
On Sunday, police in Padang detained two women for “education” after the pair, both survivors of physical abuse from their former male partners -- confirmed they were in a romantic relationship.
In Bekasi, activists said dozens of teenage boys set upon two transgendered women with iron rods. Witnesses said bystanders came to aid of the victims.
Acep’s videos have earned him paid speaking engagements. He’s applied to YouTube to monetize his account. He hopes to join “an international organization” where his sexuality and status won’t count against him.
It needs to be said these are still early days for Acep. He’s had little time to process the news of his HIV status. Heregrets falling into depression after the break up with his ex but, thankfully, not the sex that followed.
”Sex is natural,” he says. “It’s my need.”
And while he’s clear about his mission to help others infected with HIV he’s aware that his sexuality and status puts him on a collision course with his religion and maybe with his God. If so, then, so be it, he seems to say.
”Maybe I will go to hell first and then to heaven,” Acep says with nervous laugh.
“I don’t know.”