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Gay Volunteers Promote Safe Sex

Packed with people late at night, it seems like any other bar in Beijing.

But unlike most nightspots in the capital stands a man in the middle, surrounded by PowerPoint presentations.

His topic is sex, condoms and AIDS.

Undergraduate students take homosexuality research class in Fudan University. Fudan is the first university on the Chinese mainland to offer such a class as an optional course among its undergraduates. Every class has attracted more than 100 students.

The speaker, Xiao Dong, is the founder and head of a volunteer team engaged in AIDS prevention among homosexual men. The team tours gay bars to offer advice.

Established in May last year, Xiao's team now has 43 members, most of whom are homosexuals, including a handful of gay prostitutes.

"Our mission is to spread the word on AIDS among gay men, a topic that has been hiding in the closet for a long time," said Xiao, 29.

"It is quite urgent that we give gay men the basics on how to prevent AIDS."

Homosexuality is not illegal in China, and it was deleted from the official list of mental disorders in 2001. However, the group is still plagued by discrimination and stigma that are born of ignorance.

Xiao said the gay community is at high risk for AIDS but had long been neglected by the government and the public, even as attention begins to focus on the spread of the disease in the country.

"Newspapers highlight the plight of needle-sharing drug users who contract HIV and hospital patients infected through blood transfusion," Xiao said. "But little has been said about the spread of AIDS among gay men."

"The taboo against talking about sex in general and homosexuality in particular in the country remains a block against getting information to those in need," said Xiao, a former journalist who quit his newspaper job early last year.

As one of the handful of gay men who are daring to speak openly in order to promote health awareness among the gay population on the Chinese mainland - estimated at 5-10 million - Xiao said he felt obliged to help others.

"I must do something," Xiao said. "Ignorance and misconceptions may precipitate a health crisis in the gay community. I do not want to let the outsiders associate us with AIDS."

Xiao's team members voluntarily raised funds themselves for relevant publicity activities, and sometimes their activities receive financial support from relevant institutions.

When Xiao set out to build his volunteer team in May last year, he met a "kindly elderly brother" on the Internet, Shi Wei, who is the head of Chaoyang District Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

"We talked for a whole day on the Internet," Xiao said. "He encouraged me to work with his centre, which was also planning to carry out intervention among the gay community.

"Through talking, I could feel that Shi really wanted to do something for us. We share the same goal: To help gay men live healthy lives. So, I joined him."

Afterwards, Xiao and his volunteers helped Shi's centre carry out an AIDS epidemic survey among the hard-to-reach gay community in Beijing.

Throughout the second half of last year, Xiao and his members visited almost every place in Beijing where gay men were believed to gather, such as bars, saunas and parks. They encouraged nearly 600 men to have free HIV tests and consultations.

"The result made me heavy-hearted," Xiao said, on learning that more than 3 percent of the men tested were found to be HIV positive. And among those older than 40, the rate was about 15 per cent.

"These figures are quite astonishing, even though they may not exactly reflect reality, as the sample is relatively small," Xiao said.

About half of the respondents said they had had fewer than 10 sexual partners; nearly 250 gay men had from 10 and 100 partners; and 60 others admitted having had intercourse with more than 100 partners.

About 30 per cent of the men said they had also had sex with women. Only 20 percent said they use condoms every time they have sex, and another 20 percent admitted that they have never used condoms.

"We need to create an atmosphere in which risks can be openly discussed and protective action can be adopted," Xiao said.

"Despite the gloomy situation, it is never too late to take action. I have so many friends, and we are working together."

Besides the Chaoyang CDC, Xiao has begun working with most of the city's gay entertainment businesses, several medical research institutions and community hospitals, and a Guilin-based condom manufacturer, which provides condoms and lubricant to his team for distribution.

Xiao also mentioned his partner: "He gives me great support. He is a computer specialist and quite busy at his company, but every night after work and every weekend, he always accompanies me to areas with high concentrations of gay men to distribute condoms and pamphlets advocating safe sex. I owe him a lot."

According to Xiao's investigation, the city has around 46 entertainment spots where gay men like to hang out. These places receive about 3,000 visitors every day, 95 percent of whom are gay or bisexual men. Most of the spots are located in Sanlitun, Qianmen, Xinjiekou, Zhongguancun, the Central Business District and around colleges and universities.

He said he also learnt that about 200 gay prostitutes provide sexual services every day, and more than 500 men have unprotected intercourse in public bathrooms.

"We're racing against time to let more gay and bisexual men know the importance of safe sex," Xiao said. "I want to bring homosexuals out from the underground and improve interpersonal relations by promoting daytime gatherings and encouraging people to discuss their problems openly."

When talking about his plan for this year, Xiao said he would continue giving lectures on AIDS prevention, delivering free condoms at saunas and bars and seeking better co-operation with hospitals on medical consulting and treatment to HIV/AIDS-infected homosexuals.

"My aim is to build a greater sense of responsibility for safer sex, help build self-esteem amongst this group," Xiao said, adding that he planned to set up a non-profit organization this year based on his team and his website.

Xiao said there are as many as 300 websites in China about gay men. In each provincial capital, there is at least one gay work group that is active on HIV/AIDS prevention among the high-risk group.

"Many people say that our gay activists have been able to stabilize the rising alarm over the spread of AIDS to win more manoeuvring space, including more acceptance from the government," Xiao said. "But that's just part of our aim; it's by no means the ultimate goal.

"We hope we can get more attention both from the government and the public, but not only because we are at high risk for AIDS.

"I hope one day, I can happily hang out with my boyfriend hand in hand and receive greetings from passers-by. I wish all the people, including gay men, can live healthy lives in a tolerant and harmonious society together. This is my dream."

(China Daily March 22, 2006)

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