“Disease, thinness, death and termination.”
“A disease that is looked down upon.”
The above are three Chinese gay men’s impulsive answers to a question I asked at last month’s AIDS benefit at Kathleen’s 5: “What’s the first thing you think of when I say HIV/AIDS?” Many others also mentioned safe sex and condoms, but that seemed to be the extent of most people’s knowledge about the subject. Although gay men are among the high risk population of contracting the virus, many seem to have the impression that HIV is something far away from themselves.
“According to the United Nations Development Programme, about 5 percent of gay men in China are HIV positive,” says Franck Crouvezier, general manager of Kathleen’s 5. “An academic from Fudan University told me that, within the next ten years, the HIV-positive population in China might rise up to 10 percent.”
However, Zhang Yu, who works for a Shanghai-based NGO fears a far more shocking number. “It could rise to as high as 30 percent of the total population in the future, just like in Thailand.”
Although a cure is yet to be found, attitudes towards HIV/AIDS are no longer the same as they were twenty years ago. “When talking about HIV, people think about death, illness, wasting away and hospitals, and there is always lots of negativity,” say UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador and CCTV news presenter James Chau. “But that’s really rare now. Many of my friends are living with HIV, but none of them is an AIDS patient, and all of them are survivors.”
Awareness means far more than safe sex. It’s about having access to accurate information and building everyone’s knowledge. “Previously what I knew about AIDS was limited to using a condom,” admits Chau. “What about the people who don’t have access to accurate information?”
“I want show people that if I’m not afraid of eating with, being friends with or drinking with someone living with HIV – even marrying someone who’s living with HIV, then it’s not a taboo to talk about it,” Chau says. “I hope people can start to think that there is so much to hope for.”
Although gay men are often stereotypically connected with HIV/AIDS, Chau thinks gay men are also related to it in a way they should be proud of. “Gay men were the ones who first took ownership and responsibility of the epidemic to the streets and brought it to the attention of governments of the world,” he says.
As Chau says, “People are all fundamentally the same, and we live by hope and happiness.” Whether one’s gay or straight, we can all change our own lives when we’re well informed and empowered. And that’s when the real change begins.
Published in City Weekend Magazine