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Hotline Helps Gays in Heilongjiang Province
A hotline staffed by volunteers providing psychological support and information on venereal diseases and AIDS to homosexuals has won the applause and confidence of the gay community in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province.

It was the support of the volunteers that helped "Zhang", a young Chinese homosexual who preferred to remain anonymous, found the courage to go on with his life, despite the weight of public opinion.

"If not for them, I would have died alone," said Zhang, ashamed of his cowardice, speaking from behind a book.

Volunteer hotlines for homosexuals have emerged in 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Most of these hotlines were founded by gay volunteers or by experts from the country's medical and family planning sections. Some have received subsidies from Barry & Martin's Trust, a British organization focusing on AIDS control in China, and some have received guidance from domestic disease prevention and treatment departments.

"We consultants are mostly homosexuals," said volunteer Qi, adding that the volunteers can relate well to the distress of those "in the same boat" and are thus more effective.

Many Chinese consider homosexuality to be immoral, and some even regard it as a disease. The work of the volunteers will be important in bringing the public around to a more objective recognition of this particular group, said Prof. Cong Zhong with the psychological health research institute of the prestigious Beijing University.

Harbin volunteer Bai works the hotline everyday, despite the long commute from his home. "There may be people in dire need of help on the other end of the line," Bai said.

He recalled that on the night of March 1 this year, a male homosexual had called him seven times, each time hanging up without a word. When the phone rang the eighth time, Bai seized the phone and pleaded with the individual to speak out so that Bai could provide assistance.

The man on the other end said that he felt ashamed to visit a doctor, although he had long been suffering from syphilis, which had brought him to the point of committing suicide.

Fortunately, after an hour-long chat, Bai persuaded the gay man to seek medical treatment. The caller has not only recovered from the disease, he is now a hotline volunteer.

As the most populous country in the world, China has no official statistics on homosexuality, but experts estimate a figure of nearly 30 million.

Homosexuals are especially vulnerable to stress and desperation.

Volunteers often go to bars and other homosexual gathering places to transmit AIDS and sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention knowledge. Some volunteers even buy condoms at their own expense and give them to gay people free of charge.

To date, the hotline in Harbin has received over 800 calls and has become an important source for the release of psychological pressure and the pursuit of a healthy life, said Zhang Jingdong, an official in charge of the hotline with the local epidemic prevention station.

Although many Chinese still discriminate against gay men and women, the increasingly tolerant social environment, especially the emergence of homosexual volunteers, has enabled more gays to express themselves and to care for their health and lifestyles, said Zhang Beichuan, a sexual education professor with the medical school of Qingdao University.

(People's Daily June 28, 2003)

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