Public tolerance needed for Chinese gays to tackle AIDS

21:27, December 07, 2009      

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While it's becoming acceptable for gays and lesbians in Beijing to party in their own clubs, the public disclosure of a gay bar in the small city of Dali crossed an invisible line.

Due to intense publicity, the government-funded gay bar in Dali, in south China's Yunnan Province, failed to open as scheduled on Dec. 1. Local officials said the postponement was to protect volunteers from discrimination.

"Gays and lesbians as a group still face stigma and discrimination, and that is why those volunteers are afraid of exposing themselves to the public," said Wei Jiangang, a gay rights advocate who writes the popular "Queer Comrades" blog.

He appeals for greater social tolerance towards homosexuals so that they don't have to hide out in the closet.

"A gay bar is like another closet to us. We're taking shelter here, still afraid of exposing our sexual identity in public venues," he says.

In China, it was only in 1997 that homosexual practices were decriminalized, and being gay or lesbian was taken off the list of mental health illnesses only after 2001.

Wei believes greater social tolerance is essential if gay men are to practice safe sex as an effective way for AIDS prevention.

He says only when a person is confident in his sexual identity, without feeling degraded or isolated from society, will he use protection.

Zhao Jinkou, senior advisor with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Beijing Office, also asserts that discrimination inhibits the practice of safe sex. "When sexual activity is hurried and furtive, it's hard to negotiate condom use with partners."

A report released last month by UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) and China's Ministry of Health alerted the nation to the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay men.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said sexual transmission has become the major cause of infection, accounting for more than 70 percent of all newly detected HIV/AIDS cases, and sexual transmission among gay men accounted for 32 percent.

According to the report, China reported 319,877 HIV positive cases, of whom 102,323 had AIDS and 49,845 had died.

Qingdao University Professor Zhang Beichuan, an expert on HIV/AIDS prevention and homosexuality, estimates China's homosexual population at 30 million. The population of gay men is unclear.

A survey by Zhang Beichuan of 1,259 homosexuals found 8.7 percent were fired or forced to resign after revealing their sexual orientation, and 4.7 percent felt their salary and upward mobility were affected. Some 62 percent keep their sexual orientation as a secret in the work place.

They are also under tremendous pressure from relatives and families as getting married and having children are practically required by tradition. As a Chinese saying goes, having no child is the biggest disrespect to a man's parents.

Professor Zhang blames discrimination as the major cause of HIV spread in this group.

He argues that as relationships between gay men are neither encouraged or protected, they are more unlikely to develop stable relationships. As a result, they tend to have multiple sex partners and face greater chance of HIV infection.

Da Wei, the subject of the documentary "AIDS Witness" shot by Wei Jiangang, is the first man in China to live openly as an HIV-positive homosexual. He has been thrown out of a bar because of his HIV-positive status.

"I hope people can understand that the world is full of differences. Regardless of whether you agree with it or not, you should accept that others have the right to live differently."

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