Working in the Oasis

Yesterday, December 2, was World AIDS Day.

When I left my apartment at 7:30pm tonight, I thought I was going to a little celebratory activity in belated honor of the day, hosted by a local NGO that works with gay men (or, in development parlance, MSM – “men who have sex with men”). Our condom sales coordinator at the office had tossed a few hundred flavored condoms at me earlier in the day, and my boss told me to go check it out since we may be starting programs with MSM in the future.

I was tired and a little cranky and not especially looking forward to handing out business cards with one hand and banana flavored condoms with the other. I’ll go for 45 minutes max, I told myself.

Four and a half hours later, I am now back in my apartment. I should have known this wasn’t going to be the evening I anticipated when I entered the hotel at the appointed hour only to have a six-foot drag queen in a crystal-encrusted blue ball gown skitter across the lobby towards me and hustle me into an elevator, “So you don’t miss the opening number!”

What followed was three and a half packed hours of full-blown Chinese extravaganza…only hosted by all gay men. There were melodramatic modern dances ironically echoing the militaristic performances of the Cultural Revolution, classic Peking opera numbers, scores of glittering drag queens up and down the aisles of the grand auditorium decked out with banners and posters promoting HIV testing and condom use.

There were skits depicting how to make healthy choices in tough situations, a set by a rock band of gay teenagers, and a somewhat unintentionally tragic interview with a young man who had recently tested HIV positive, but was so scared to show his face – even in a room full of activists and allies – that the whole interview was conducted behind a bamboo screen.

The audience of hundreds cheered, no one judged, and presenters talked sincerely about equality among all people. Plus they gave out some raffle prizes of rice cookers and kitchen knives – because this is China, and nobody’s told them it’s not the 1950s anymore.

I sometimes forget what the work I’m involved with here is really about. My organization mostly does HIV prevention work in Kunming, and we mostly work with injecting drug users (IDUs) because until recently that was the most prevalent transmission mode of HIV in China. And I have to admit: working with IDUs, even when you’re not doing the direct work, can get a little depressing. They have as much right to be free of HIV as anybody, but addicts are sick in body and mind. They relapse often and there is as much despair as there is hope.

Tonight I remembered that what we are doing here is really about social justice, and that I am in a rare environment in what is still a very conservative society. When those men I met tonight went home, almost all of them left their “gay” identity in the auditorium, out of necessity. Almost nobody in China gets to work in a place where staff talk about marginalized people like they are human beings, where people don’t think anything of having condoms and sachets of lubricant stacked on their desks, where gay staff members are out of the closet.

I get to live in a progressive little pocket of this country where, for all of its problems, people are striving to make something good and just. And tonight was thrilling.

Not ready to go home directly after the celebration was over, a wandered for a while in Kunming’s empty back streets in the cold, clear night. I followed a yowling cat in and out of a few dark corners before heading home.

World AIDS Day 2009: "We are together with you"

2 thoughts on “Working in the Oasis

  1. What is the name of the organisation working with MSM? I am coming to Kunming for a month or so later in the year and do alot of work in this area back home, would love to find out about what they are doing.

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