Thursday, July 5, 2007

Labour of Love

Xiao Dong is a 31-year-old with a crew cut that badly needs a trim, and there's a few white hairs sprinkled in between.

He's a gay HIV/AIDS activist who works at the Chaoyang Chinese AIDS Volunteer Group. The small cramped office is in a medical clinic next to the China Disease Control, with which he works closely.

The activity room has some impressive pictures of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Bill Gates visiting the centre. Gates was most recently here in April, but didn't make a donation to this non-profit group that gets absolutely no government funding.

Xiao and his band of volunteers are trying to educate homosexuals, sex workers and migrant workers about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

They hand out brochures along with condoms to the areas that the above groups hang out. He admits the gay community has been receptive to their work as he explains that they're more educated and understand that they need to take precautions to have safe sex.

He's more worried about the other two groups who don't know about syphilis, the number one STD in China, and then HIV/AIDS. Xiaos' group also tries to educate drug users about the need to use clean needles and offers a free needle exchange.

The young man started doing this volunteer job after some of his friends contracted HIV/AIDS and felt "someone had to take responsibility."

The clinic also gives people free tests and consultation.

Officially there are 3,000 cases of HIV/AIDS in Beijing, but Xiao thinks it's over 20,000 as many either don't know they have the disease or don't want to register with the government to admit that they need help.

In a 2004 report, the World Health Organization said that of the estimated 840,000 cases of
Chinese living with HIV/AIDS, the biggest group, 42 per cent, are drug injection users, not homosexuals.

And yet in China there is a widespread perception that HIV/AIDS a gay disease, not something heterosexuals can contract.

There's even a dispute over the actual number of gays in Beijing and China. While the country's foremost expert, Zhang Beichuan, professor at Qingdao University says there are 300,000 homosexuals in Beijing, he believes there are between 30-52 million in the country.

But if you tell an average, educated Beijinger there are 300,000 gays in the city, he will adamantly refuse to believe it, even though that calculates to two per cent of the population. Even 100,000 is 100,000 too many.

And this is the uphill battle Xiao faces everyday.

When asked what his family thought of him doing this job, he curtly replied that he could do whatever he wanted. He paused and then added, "It makes me happy and lonely."

"Happy because I get to help so many people, and lonely because many friends stopped associating with me because of the work that I do," he explained.

May grassroots activists like Xiao know that their work is not in vain. There are so many more people they need to reach out to.


ks said...

what is xiao's regular occupation? is he also homo? how does he get funding? education is the way to go for the masses in order to avoid a practice in futility.

IheartNY said...

your dad should start a blog. i find his posts very interesting and sometimes (perhaps unintentionally) very amusing too.

any chance you can teach him how to blog too?