It was 1985: the US Aids epidemic was at its height but the Republican-led government didn’t even recognise the disease. Into this void, activist Craig R Miller led a community’s response to the public-health emergency and gave birth to the Aids Walk, the foot-stomping fundraiser that now comes to Beijing this month. ‘I first joined the walk in Los Angeles, where it originated, and I can’t tell you how excited I was,’ Wei Jiangang, chief executive of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute (BGHEI) recalls. ‘The whole crowd, gay or lesbian – or even straight – was there for the same cause... the walk was so fun – it felt more like a hiking party.’
A sponsored event, the Aids Walk donates income to local medical and community organisations. Such events are especially important in China, where Aids prevention-and-treatment programmes receive less money than most Western counterparts – at its 2007 peak, funding amounted to 0.7RMB per capita; the US equivalent was 10.6USD (about 100 times more). But the walk’s not all about the yuan. ‘Money makes a difference, that’s undeniable,’ Wei says, ‘but more importantly, we want to make people pay greater attention to this issue. The essence of this event is about communication, which is crucial to the education of Aids.’
That’s what will bring a turn-out of community-minded folks, volunteers and activists to the Great Wall on Saturday 13 for China’s first-ever Aids Walk. And everyone is welcome – gay or straight. ‘[We want] fewer misunderstandings about Aids,’ says Wei. ‘And this opportunity for conversation is what traditional fund-raising events don’t have.’
One of these misunderstandings concerns the relation between Aids and homosexuality. ‘Aids has long been called the “gay disease” in the West, and, unfortunately, is also given that incorrect name by many people in China today,’ says Wei.
Today’s homophobia is the result of Cultural Revolution-era campaigns. In an interview in Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies (2000), Zhang Beichuan, a director of the China Sexology Association, explains that homosexuality was rarely mentioned during the Mao era. ‘And when it was,’ he says, ‘it was treated as immoral. Whenever the government discussed the problems of society, it referred to three things: prostitution, drug addiction and gay sex. [Later] they claimed Aids, like homosexuality, was the result of the liberalism of the corrupted Western capitalist class.’
This forceful, inescapable propaganda was cemented by state-backed education. Homosexuality was, until 1997, part of the crime of ‘hooliganism,’ a sweeping charge that encompassed a broad range of social ‘transgressions’ – from adultery to counter-revolutionism – and provided police with an excuse to harass gay men, who risked ‘re-education through labour’. Once a hooligan, it was almost impossible for citizens to shake the label.
Times have changed, of course: Aids is no longer officially recognised as a societal problem, and the crime of ‘hooliganism’ no longer exists. But ignorance and prejudice persist.
What’s worse, this is jeopardising the health of potential gay HIV carriers. In ‘HIV Prevention: Bring Safe Sex to China’, an article published in Nature magazine this May, Shang Hong, a professor from China Medical University, reports that Chinese homosexuals are much less inclined to reach out for HIV-related information and tests than in the West, such is the level of embarrassment and ignorance about the disease.
In China, gay HIV carriers rose from 0.3 percent of the total affected population in 2005 to 13.7 percent in 2011. Infection rates are increasing by an estimated 70,000 per year, says UNAids, assisted by the sex industry and corrupt blood-transfusion programmes, such as the notorious case in Hunan in the early 1990s. Another factor, more unique to China, is the tendency of many young gay men to be married – some 31.2 percent, according to a 2011 study.
But the interest the walk has received so far is impressive: a recent Dance to Fight HIV/Aids, at Migas, raised over 30,000RMB. In the words of Wei: ‘It was just a big party. Everyone had fun and everyone was happy – that’s what charity should be about, right?’
The China Aids Walk will be held on Sat 13.