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One of China’s Early AIDS Heroes Hounded into Hiding Identity

ABC News Radio(BEIJING) -- In 2005, Dawei Tian was sitting on an airplane, writing a movie script about a gay man with HIV. It was the story of his life. He was proud to be traveling around the country by airplane (something his parents had never done), giving speeches and being interviewed about his experience and attitudes.

Dawei was the first Chinese man to admit his sexual orientation and HIV-positive status on state television.

"I told the TV station there was no need to hide my face or voice, I wanted to use my real name because I wanted to show the audience the real me: sunny, happy and normal. I wanted to educate them that gay men are normal people as well, and that HIV carriers are not terrifying," he told ABC News recently.

After a glamorous time on TV and giving speeches, Dawei looked forward to helping people have a better understanding of what it means to be a gay man and HIV carrier. He thought he would make a lot of friends and that he would be famous.

That didn't happen. China was not ready to accept a gay lifestyle and AIDS still carried a strong stigma.

In the years since, Dawei's parents have been ostracized. Family and friends believed he did something immoral and shameful. Dawei was pressured to leave his apartment by the landlord who offered him two month's rent and extra 500RMB, about $80. He was fired by his company and couldn't get another job. When the gay community in the city he was living in found out he carries HIV, he found he could not get a date.

Today Dawei lives in another city under a fake name. The backlash was so fierce that he has abandoned the lesson he was preaching. When asked by ABC News, "Would you tell your partner you are an HIV carrier when you have sex?" Dawei answered, "Of course not."

Dawei is not alone in China. According to a report released by the Ministry of Health right before World AIDS Day in 2012, between January and October of 2012, there have been almost 70,000 newly-registered HIV and AIDS cases. The report says sexual transmission is responsible for 85 percent of the cases.

Dawei remembered that when he first came to Beijing, he met a man on the Internet. It was the first time Dawei felt normal, that he wasn't the only one in this world interested in men and that he did not have to repress his feelings anymore.

"I knew nothing about safe sex or protecting myself. I thought AIDS was so far away from me," he remembers. "At that time I only knew condoms were used for contraception. I would never get pregnant with another man, so I thought it was not necessary," said Dawei.

Sex education is still considered taboo in Chinese society. Parents are afraid the sex education will encourage young people to have sex before getting married. Until five years ago, Chinese police would use possession of condoms as evidence that suspects were involved in prostitution.

The stigma surrounding gay men in Chinese society make intervention efforts difficult. Homosexuality was not removed from the official list of mental disorders until 2001. Most gay men in China are married and under social pressure to hide their sexual orientation.

Zhao Zheng, works for Tianjin Dark Blue Working Group. It is a grassroots organization committed to HIV prevention and care for HIV-positive people. "Sex education in China is very poor, especially for gay men," he said. One time Zhao was invited by a group of male students from a big university in northern China to give a speech about AIDS. The school administration told him that he could talk about AIDS, but would not allow mentioning condoms.

Professor Zhang Liqi, director of Tsinghua University's Institute of Human Virology and Integrated Research Center for AIDS, says the lack of sex ed in China poses a danger to the country.

"Sex education is far behind the pace. If the government doesn't take any measures, it is very dangerous for China. The Chinese dream will never come true," Zhang said.

Now Dawei has moved to another city, which he refuses to identify. He has changed his name and identity and is working as an on-call foot masseusse. In his free time he is working on writing his movie scripts. On World AIDS Day in 2012, Dawei took the train and traveled to Beijing to attend a small fundraising event. Sitting in the corner of a small book store near the Drum Tower in Beijing, Dawei's pure white jacket highlighted his pale complexion. He looked very clean, and smiled to everyone at the event who was trying hard to give him extra hugs to make him feel more welcome. It has been eight years since he was affected with HIV. He says he still feels quite healthy and strong.

Dawei refused to take a picture. He said he has stopped showing his face in public. He is trying to live in a low-key lifestyle. The only thing he cares about right now is whether he can be treated and seen as a normal person and live a normal life. His dream of turning his personal story into a movie is still strong, but Dawei has not written the end of the movie as he doesn't know how his life will turn out.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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