Straight Talk Makes Headway in HIV and AIDS

Straight Talk Makes Headway in HIV and AIDS

Volunteers from Colourful Sky hand out condoms and AIDS prevention pamphletsKUNMING, China - “I must have been the only fully dressed man to ever hang out in a gay sauna,” recalls Wang Ming, laughing. “No wonder everyone stared at me.”

Looking back at what he has been through since 2002, Wang can only laugh as he recalls the challenges he faced as a timid heterosexual entering what to him was the baffling world of gay men.

To break the ice, the bespectacled young man from the Yunnan provincial health education institute began playing chess at the sauna, handing out pamphlets and condoms to curious onlookers during breaks.

When the China-UK HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project gave support to the health institute in 2002 to start intervention work in the homosexual community of Kunming, Wang did not know much about gay lifestyles.

He struggled to find even a single member of this somewhat invisible community here in the capital of Yunnan province in south-western China. Then the China-UK AIDS project office hosted an AIDS conference in Kunming in June 2002, inviting Professor Zhang Beichuan as speaker. As a pioneer in AIDS intervention work, Zhang invited readers of his national newsletter to participate in the conference. Not many came to the conference in the daytime, but many more sneaked into the hotel at night to collar Zhang.

In the end, 14 brave souls pledged to cooperate with Wang as volunteers for a fledgling project called ‘Colourful Sky’. They included Li Jinyong, who later became the team manager. Li and Wang joined forces to improve awareness in the homosexual community, and help it and government health officials reach out to each other.

At first, the sauna’s owner was not too happy to see the team. He feared that introducing use of condoms would draw unwanted attention from the police make his business suffer. But the owner’s worries subsided when in March 2004, the provincial government itself required that condoms be made available at all hotels and entertainment venues.

Colourful Sky has also been successful in installing AIDS-related billboards inside Kunming’s main gay bar, winning the owner’s permission after hard negotiations. The owner even agreed to have AIDS-themed gatherings in the venue, inserting AIDS prevention tips in the night show quiz. The winners get prizes such as condoms and lubricants.

Cooperation between Wang’s official institute and gay volunteers have not always been smooth, but joint efforts do pay off for all sides. The provincial health institute, for instance, coordinated a face-to-face meeting of the gay community and police, in which they discussed the prevalent problem of gay people being blackmailed. Police promised to do their best to respect a gay person’s right to privacy -- while also investigating the crime.

Since those early days, more and more have joined the group of volunteers, organising community events that can attract more than 200 members from all over the city as well as nearby counties. Local regulations require that any gathering of more than 100 people must have police permission, but the official status of Wang’s institute has convinced police to turn a blind eye.

In 2005, Colourful Sky’s activity centre was born, with 150,000 yuan (18,750 U.S. dollars) coming from the International AIDS Alliance. At the downtown drop-in centre, visitors leaf through newspapers and magazines, play ping pong, watch videos, and meet new friends.

A Personal Voyage

The centre is often short of hands. Thirty-year-old Qiu Feng, one of its four full-time employees, has his hands full organising events, handling media relations, editing the newsletter and helping manage volunteers’ work in promoting safer sex in gay hangouts during weekends.

“It was a car accident in 2003 that made me rethink my life,” he says, explaining how he joined Colourful Sky. He quit his east-coast job in 2004 and headed west to Yunnan, the province where many urban Chinese youth traditionally seek spiritual solace. In Qiu’s case, he says he did not know what exactly he was looking for, but was watching out for something that might move him. Another reason, he now admits, was that a strange place always sounds safer. For most of his life, Qiu had hidden his sexuality, burying what he calls “a sense of great shame”.

He first learned of Colourful Sky from an advertisement on the Internet recruiting volunteers for the centre. Despite the social work he had done previously, Qiu had never realised that there were volunteers whose sole job was to reach out to gay people. By volunteering for a gay organisation, Qiu feared that others might guess his true orientation, but nevertheless registered in August 2005. Within half a month, he was a full-time employee.

One day in October 2005, a man called Colourful Sky in a state of panic, on the verge of suicide. The hotline caller told Qiu he had had unprotected sex and was now noticing AIDS-like symptoms. During a marathon series of phone and Internet conversations over the following days, Qiu tried to convince the caller to take a blood test. “It’s hard enough to be gay in this society,” says Qiu. “Let alone be a gay person with AIDS.”

Finally, the caller agreed to take the test, on condition of anonymity. Qiu volunteered to check the results. “When the test came up negative,” he says, “I don’t know who was happier or more relieved -- him or me.”

An Unexpected Side Effect

AIDS, like homosexuality, remains taboo in certain regions of China’s mainland. But as the province with the fastest spread of the pandemic in the country, Yunnan has also been the fastest to come to terms with the issues it raises. Qiu and his colleagues now join weekly training sessions, tailored to grassroots communities, organised by the provincial Red Cross. Topics range from interpersonal skills to proposal writing.

In the beginning, some participants did feel awkward and some were even upset over mixing with homosexuals, drug users, sex workers and HIV-positive people all in one room, to discuss what they had just been taught.

But familiarity has grown during the weekly meetings, so that the more regular attendees now tease one another like old friends. At a recent session, says Qiu, everyone got involved in a role-play game called ‘Wildfire’, designed to illustrate the impact of the pandemic. A drug user and sex worker got the short straws: they had to act out the role of persons living with HIV. In their reflections right after the game, says Qiu, both actors broke down in tears. It was only a game, but for a moment both had put their feet in the shoes of persons with HIV, and it was a valuable lesson about discrimination for all involved.

More than 20 grassroots community groups like Colourful Sky have sprung up in Yunnan, mainly through the support of the China-UK HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project.

The latest estimates by the United Nations and the Chinese government says China has some 650,000 cases of HIV, with new infections rising to 70,000 in 2005. But while HIV and AIDS takes deeper root, the pandemic has also had a most unexpected side effect in China – it has given voice to otherwise silent groups, as society rethink attitudes and age-old prejudices.

Governments, as well as the rest of society, have found that they have no choice but to listen. In March 2004, Colourful Sky co-founders Wang and Li were invited to talk on a provincial radio phone-in programme, where they openly discussed not only HIV and AIDS prevention but homosexuality and the little-known gay community life in Kunming.

Following the show, letters of protest immediately landed on the table of the programme producers. Seven more shows followed.

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