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Health Website Takes Softly Approach with Gays

Authorities in Beijing are reconsidering their publicity tactics after failing to attract homosexuals to the city's first government-run gay Internet forum after two months on line.

Site managers admit the "Forum for Comrades" -- named after the slang term for homosexuals -- may have suffered from a total lack of publicity despite its health messages.

The site had failed to attract postings on its notice board on www.cystd.com, an official website of the Disease Prevention and Control Center of Chaoyang District to promote AIDS prevention knowledge, said Fu Qingyuan, an official with the center.

The forum had two chatrooms: one for same-sex lovers to share their emotions and experiences; and the other for health advisors to offer counseling and advice on AIDS, said Fu, who is in charge of the website.

"We actually opened the forum in June, but didn't publicize the issue because we feared it might spur debate among the public," he said. "After all, this is the first government-backed forum in Beijing to openly discuss same-sex love, which is a highly controversial issue in China."

Less than 10 postings had been put up and the site had recorded about 1,000 clicks in total by Monday.

But after a report in Monday's Beijing Times newspaper, the number of postings had risen to 30 by midday.

"I've found this website only today," wrote a Internet user who gave his name as "Call for Love". "I hope the government and society will understand us: we 'comrades' are as good, faithful and law-abiding as anyone else. Please do not discriminate against us, or treat us only as AIDS patients."

Fu said few people joined the discussions probably because they thought their postings would be considered "obscene" and deleted.

"Such fears are really unnecessary because the forum is designed for health advisors to hear this group's actual needs, enhance communication and prevent the potential spread of AIDS," he said. "We won't delete any message except those that offer prostitution services or contain pornographic pictures."

He said the center may consider launching a moderate media campaign to publicize the forum, but sparingly. "Again we'll be very careful because it's a sensitive and touchy issue."

Alongside the comrades' forum, Fu's website also publishes domestic and international developments on AIDS diagnosis and treatment and has an online question and answer session hosted by medical workers.

China has between five million and 10 million gay men, according to official figures published in 2004, the most recent data available. The number of lesbians was not published, but Zhang Beichuan, a Qingdao University professor and a renowned expert on homosexual studies, estimated there are around 10 million.

"Regardless of what people think, same-sex love is an inevitable social issue we have to face," said Shi Wei, a top health official in Chaoyang District, which has the city's largest white-collar and migrant population.

"Homosexuals are more vulnerable to AIDS and other venereal diseases and therefore need extra care and help," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency August 14, 2006)

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