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Liushi: Life of a gay man with AIDS

The estimated number of people infected with HIV in China is between 430,000 and 1.5 million. And the number of homosexuals in China is put at 36 million by the famous Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe. But there is no estimation yet of how many people belong to both groups. Liushi, a 21-year-old assistant at the charity organization China AIDS Walk, is someone who falls in both categories. Upbeat and outgoing, he shared his stories and offered a rare insight into the psyche of the Chinese gay men during a conversation with

Let bygones be bygones

Liushi (流逝) is not the real name of the young man, but an alias. It means ‘pass by’ in Chinese. “I have had the name for about three years now,”Liushi said, “I was unhappy then. And a sentence caught my attention: Let time go by, let your sorrows go by. I thought it was beautiful and decided to give myself the name Liushi.”

Photo: Courtesy of Liushi

Liushi did not reveal why he was unhappy. Perhaps the new name did help him to put behind his past and live like a happy man. “I decided to live my life as happily as I could after a month’s struggle with my AIDS diagnosis. And I have been living so ever since,” he said.

In June 2012, while he was still in his hometown Taiyuan, capital of central China’s Shanxi province, Liushi noticed there was something wrong with him. “I was very weak and fell sick all the time.” He went to see a doctor and was told that it was caused by his ‘unclean sexual history.’ “I was shocked because I hadn’t had sex for a long time at the time,” Liu said. “I was working on an AIDS program back then, and I guessed perhaps it was AIDS.”

The fear of contracting AIDS made that period the darkest time of his life. “I told myself if I have AIDS, I will commit suicide,” said Liu. A later trip to the local Center for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed his fear. “I felt relieved, weirdly. The calmness when I got my diagnosis was eerie. I thought ‘all hope is gone. I just want to die.’”

It was a friend who helped him through the difficult times. “He is also gay. But we were just friends,” Liu paused to explain, “I think it is ridiculous that people think there can be no friendship between gay men. We were about to start our new jobs in Shanghai together before I found out about my AIDS. He stayed to accompany me for a month. He took me out to have fun. He asked me whether I felt happy. I said I did. And he said I should keep living like this, no matter how long I’ve got to live.” Then Liushi confided with a big smile on his face, “I decided to take his advice.”

Seeking happiness through charity

Shortly after he made that decision, Liushi joined the Quality Rapid Testing, now called “Tongban” (euphemism for gay men) Rapid Testing (同伴快检), a program that provides HIV, syphilis, and urinal track infection rapid tests for gay men in urban China. Liu became a volunteer tester and later a worker for the Shanxi Landian group (山西蓝典工作组), a local community-based organization that runs the program initiated by the AIDS Relief Fund for China, a public charitable organization founded by Chinese-American Wu Xinqian (乌辛堃).

Liu worked for the group for over a year. Besides Rapid Testing, the program also provides services to those who are newly diagnosed with HIV. Liushi was one of the volunteers whose job was to accompany the newly diagnosed. “We offer help and guidance to them for a month after their diagnosis. It is crucial that they have support during this vulnerable time. I was lucky I had the support of my friend when I was diagnosed. But not everyone is as lucky.”

“It was my first charity work and I loved it. The joy you get from helping others is enormous. I cannot describe it. It is the source of my happiness.” After a year working at Rapid Testing, Liushi went to Beijing to attend a training program which led him to China AIDS Walk.

“China AIDS Walk needed a volunteer to speak for people affected by HIV at their press conference. And I offered to perform that role,” Liushi said. “It carried much more weight if I, as an AIDS patient, spoke for the community. That was the best thing I could do - to call for people to stop discriminating against AIDS patients, which is one of the main goals of China AIDS Walk.” After the press conference, Liushi was recruited by China AIDS Walk as an administrative assistant.

Liushi posing with actress Xu Qing (许晴), ambassador of China AIDS Walk on the charity program's launching ceremony on July 4. China AIDS Walk stemmed from AIDS Walk Los Angeles and is jointly hosted by China Population Welfare Foundation, Beijing Gender Health Education Institute and China Alliance of People Living with HIV/AIDS (CAP+). Photo: Xinhua

Having worked solely for charity organizations for the past year or so, the 21-year old made barely enough to cover his daily expenses. But he said he doesn’t care about making big money. He just wants to do something useful that could make him feel happy and fulfilled. “I’ll continue working for China AIDS Walk as long as prejudices against AIDS patients continue to exist,” he said.

Not out of the closet yet

Liushi found out he is gay when he was in junior middle school. “I was about 13 at the time. And I was attracted to men. So I went on the Internet and learned that there are many people like me, and we are called homosexuals,” Liushi recalled.

To this day, Liushi said he never told his parents about his sexual orientation face-to-face, nor did he tell them that he had AIDS. “Instead, I went the other way. I told the entire country first. And my parents were among the last to find out about it.”

Last August, shortly after he came to Beijing, Liushi made a public quest for love on Qixi, the Chinese Valentine’s Day, as part of the anti-prejudice campaign of China AIDS Walk. He went to downtown Beijing’s Xidan Joy City shopping mall with a pink board that says: I am an AIDS patient; I want to find a lover on Qixi. His image was all over the Internet the next day. And his parents were bombarded with calls from friends and relatives asking about their son.

Liushi's Qixi quest for love. Photo:

“My parents learned about my condition from my uncle who was the first to discover my secret. Luckily he was supportive and helped me a lot,” Liushi said. “But I never told my parents in person that I am gay. I am their only child. I guess they are desperate. But they never said anything to me.”

Liushi did not say that he was gay while he made that public quest. “The point was not to find a lover. The point was to let the public know that AIDS is not scary. AIDS patients can and have the right to have a lover, and even to have a healthy child. I didn’t say I was gay because I did not want to link AIDS with gay men. It is not fair.”

However, HIV infection rates among gay men are the highest in China, according to many reports. After he was confirmed as an AIDS patient, Liushi informed all his former partners. “They all did the test. All were fine except one. And he was the last partner of mine.” There was no way to tell who got infected first. “But since I found out first, I felt I was kind of responsible for his infection. And I was really upset for a long time. But he’s doing well now. ”

“I was lucky, most of my friends and my former lovers were supportive of me when they found out about my situation. Some of my ex-boyfriends even said they would be with me if they did not pass the HIV screening.” Liushi admitted the prejudice against AIDS patients is ever-present. “I’ve heard so many stories of families and friends turning away from people who were infected.” During his August quest, most people were scared away by his board alone. In over an hour, only 28 people agreed to talk to him and the other volunteers. They even got an extreme response from a person who said people should “stay away from AIDS patients.”

New love, new hope

Compared with many other AIDS patients in China, Liushi is lucky. He is happy with his job. His condition is now stable. And he has a boyfriend who is with him in Beijing. “I met him online shortly after my diagnosis. I talked to him about my situation. It was easier to open up to strangers you meet on the Internet. He said he wanted to be with me. But I held back. Even though I know I could protect him from infection, I felt I shouldn’t be with him. After all, he is healthy,” Liushi said.

Liushi poses for our camera after the interview, weaing his China AIDS Walk T-shirt. Photo:

Eventually Liushi was moved by the man’s persistence and his love. He went to see him in his hometown in Zhanjiang, a southern seaside city. “He took me to the sea. It was so nice,” Liushi said with an innocent smile. “After meeting him in person, I decided that he is dependable. And we are together. He’s in Beijing too. ” Liushi turned to the camera and smiled, “He promised to donate 1,000 yuan to China AIDS Walk. I have to get it on tape so that he cannot turn his back on it.”

At the end of our interview, Liushi said what he wanted most was for the government to protect the culture of homosexuals and to safeguard their rights. “Movies about homosexuals should not be banned anymore. And homosexuals should be able to get married just as heterosexual couples.” Despite all the obstacles, he said he is definitely optimistic about the future, true to his bubbly nature. “See you at the AIDS Walk at Great Wall in October.”

With more and more people working for the same cause as Liushi, there is no reason not to believe in a bright future for the homosexuals in China.


Writer's Note:

We met Liushi again at China AIDS Walk's Great Wall walk on October 13, a month after our interview. The young man, who was one of the main organizers of the event, wowed us with his stamina, his people skills, and his talent as a DJ. It turned out he was rather low-key during the interview and did not mention he used to be an excellent anchor and event planner before he took on charity work. We wish this talented young man all the best in his future and hope that through the relentless efforts from him and the many volunteers like him, the future is going to be ever-brighter for people living with HIV/AIDS and the LGBT community in China.

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