Poster boys of safe sex

Controversy surrounds posters promoting HIV/AIDS awareness among gay men. Xu Lin reports.

Beijinger Zhang Lei was surprised to see posters in her neighborhood that showed two shirtless men each holding a condom.

She snapped three photos of the posters in her community in Beijing's Xicheng district and posted them on her Sina Weibo micro blog on Nov 29. Her post stirred fierce debate.

Some doubt the government approved the posters. Others believe it shows progress in China's HIV/AIDS prevention and mindset.

"I never thought government offices would print such posters, as homosexuality seems taboo in China," Zhang, who works in a real estate finance company, says.

"I think the posters are good but wonder if the elderly can understand them."

The posters were created in 2009 by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Chengdu Tongle Health Consulting Center, a Chengdu, Sichuan province-based NGO that promotes homosexual culture, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.

In December 2010, the CDC printed the posters and mailed them to its branches throughout the country.

The center also posted the downloadable electronic versions on its website.

"The posters have been used for some time, but the public didn't know that until recently, because the posters are mostly displayed in gay bars and public bathhouses that are frequented by homosexuals," Xu Jie, of the CDC's National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention, says.

"Conventional AIDS posters can't capture the attention of special groups, such as intravenous drug users and homosexuals. It's necessary to design different posters for them, to better promote HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment."

He says the center has also designed posters for drug users and sex workers.

There are about 780,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in China. About 48,000 people were diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2011. Among them, 29.4 per cent are men who have sex with men (MSM).

"Because the infection rate among the MSM community is quite high, we must promote HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment among this population," Xu says.

"The posters are a good way to do this."

The center also organizes peer education to teach MSM about HIV/AIDS and hands out condoms.

"It's the first time we've widely used standardized AIDS posters with themes relating to homosexuality," Xu says.

"Some (CDC) branches used to develop their own publicity materials for homosexuals, but most have no such things."

Chengdu Tongle director Wang Xiaodong says, "Most AIDS posters are to warn others about the disease's serious consequences, through such means as slogans. We want to show our solicitude, so that MSM can live better lives."

The style is "very bold", says Lin Shu, who helped design the posters.

"The owners of gay bars like that because they want something that touches one's heart rather than something that shows how horrible AIDS is," the 36-year-old says.

Lin and his colleagues at Chengdu Tongle first conducted market research and designed six posters according to the themes of promoting condom use, HIV/AIDS testing and care for - rather than discrimination toward - people living with HIV/AIDS.

The images are intended to be very sweet. They include such portrayals as of gay lovers going hand-in-hand to take an HIV test, and lovers hugging to comfort someone living with HIV.

Lin sent samples to dozens of gay bars and bathhouses as a trial run. The owners were willing to use them. One of the biggest gay bars in Chengdu even put a poster in a lamp box advertisement in front of its gate.

"Overseas, there are similar posters, which can improve one's understanding of gay people," Wang says.

"China should do more about it, and these posters should be widely used."

Lin is surprised to hear the places where the posters are popping up.

"They're supposed to be put up in places frequented by homosexuals. I never thought they would appear in residential districts."

Lin says the posters help HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. But those who know little about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS may misunderstand them as saying that "gay equals AIDS".

Beijing CDC deputy director He Xiong says, "The posters are designed only for MSM community, which hides from the public. We are just telling people that if you adopt this way of life, you should be aware of your own health."