For a lesson in researching a population segment that you've never knowingly met, Associate Professor Limin Mao, from the Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH) at UNSW Sydney, has a few tips.

Headlining the 2019 Sex Lecture, A/Prof Mao unpacked her 20-year journey into social HIV research with gay Asian men, a population to whom she is an almost complete outsider.

"I am not gay, nor male," A/Prof Mao said. "Coming from Shanghai...I literally had never knowingly met an openly gay man before I came to Sydney [in 1999], and here I was embarking on a research journey on this topic."

The Centre for Social Research in Health Sex Lecture, Engaging Gay Asian Men: hard to research amongst the hard to reach?, was given by Associate Professor Limin Mao on Thursday 21 February at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales as part of the 2019 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. 

Related: Watch the 2019 Sex Lecture

Related: The 2019 Sex Lecture: the benefits of researching the hard-to-reach

Starting out, A/Prof Mao leveraged her relationships with her then-mentors and now-friends, Associate Professor Garrett Prestage and Dr Paul Van de Ven. These mentors gave her firm adivce.

"Don't pretend to be someone you are not, and don't fall into a 'victim-finding' trap," A/Prof Mao told the audience.

While A/Prof Mao followed the first point of advice, she set about deep-diving into the second, countering the 'victim-finding trap' by following the empowerment concept and working to "identify, celebrate and cultivate resilience [for] individuals, groups and communities."

A/Prof Mao also took a hands-on approach to understanding the groups under her research lens.

"As a student, you would normally turn to the library and conduct an initial search of the existing literature," A/Prof Mao said. "For this research, however, I decided that I should explore Sydney's Oxford Street and Newtown area to search and meet with ordinary gay men in real life.

"Around 1999 I began my immersion with all sorts of gay men through numerous observations, casual chats and site tours." (It should be noted that the term 'gay men' is used loosely here and refers to gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.)

This practical approach gave A/Prof Mao access to many insightful and passionate people, and further shaped her HIV social research journey.

"I am most thankful to the invaluable wisdom, trust and friendships that I have gained from many community leaders, health care workers, volunteers and ordinary people in all sorts of places who have participated, advised, collaborated and critiqued a range of my research projects."

Through her research and relationships, A/Prof Mao became a member of the Sydney Gay Asian Men Periodic Surveys (SGAMPS) research team.

"The [SGAMPS] take a snapshot of how individuals in the community understand and respond to sexual health, mainly HIV and other STIs," said A/Prof Mao. "By taking these snapshots repeatedly, we are able to provide a bigger picture to policy makers and health professionals of how communities as a whole evolve over time."

Since its inception, the SGAMPS have been crucial in shifting HIV research priorities in Australia to include gay Asian men.

"In the initial two rounds of our SGAMPS, we identified that there were critical barriers for gay Asian men to come forward for HIV and STI testing," A/Prof Mao said.

"In the last few years, gay Asian peer navigators have been recruited, trained and placed in community-based testing sites in close collaboration with public-funded sexual health clinics that provide confidential, more streamlined and Asian friendlier services for HIV and STI testing across Sydney metro-areas."

Findings from the latest rounds of SGAMPS have revealed parity in attitudes and understanding towards HIV and STI testing.

"In our latest two rounds of data collection, gay Asian men, particularly if they have been in Australia for more than five years, are now equally likely to engage with regular HIV and STI testing as the majority of local gay men do.

"Further...more than half of gay Asian men, regardless of their HIV status, undertake a variety of STI testing to improve their health and prevent onward transmission."