Queer hero

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-22 5:03:01

LGBT activist battles to end stigma against AIDS


Liu Shi, a social activist fighting for the rights of the LGBT community and people with AIDS, won a silver medal at the Gay Games 2014 in Cleveland, the US. Photos: Li Hao/GT, IC

Liu Shi strutted proudly across the sports stadium with thousands of people cheering for him on August 9 at the march-in ceremony of the Gay Games in Cleveland, the US.

"I felt very proud, and great pressure on myself too, because I was alone, and I represented an entire country," said Liu, 22. Around 8,000 people from 51 countries registered to participate in 35 events, with President Barack Obama welcoming the athletes in a video message shown at the opening ceremony. Liu was the only athlete from China.

"I want to organize a big team for next time, which will be in 2018 in Paris," he said. "I am proud to be gay."

Extreme attitudes

Liu won second place in the 50-meter breaststroke event in the 18 to 24 age group, recording a personal best of 40.6 seconds. Liu had trained with various school teams since he was 6 years old. He also prepared himself for the event by practicing and watching videos of the Olympic Games. He never expected to win a medal, and says the experience was very important to him.

"At the games, people don't care if you are gay or not. They just cherish this opportunity to entertain themselves," he said. Liu explained that most of the participants were not professional athletes, and not everybody was gay.

"Everybody says that this is more of a carnival than a sports event." Liu remembers one particular scene from the games: Two men in their 60s were still swimming when the others had already finished, and everybody - athletes, volunteers, and spectators - applauded them until they reached the finishing line.

The Gay Games of 2014, which took place between August 9 and 16 in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, was the ninth of its kind. To change the situation of gay athletes being a hidden and marginalized community, athletes proudly marched into the sports stadiums in San Francisco in 1982. The Gay Games have been held every four years since then, and is one of the most influential international sporting events that feature homosexual athletes. 

Heteronormativity and homophobic attitudes are often taken to the extreme in sports culture, said Liu. But there are well-known outspoken homosexual athletes, including former American tennis player Billie Jean King, and American Tom Waddell, the brainchild and founder of the Gay Games.

Double identities

Liu realized he was gay when he was in junior high school. "I didn't feel any pressure when I announced I was a gay person. I am proud of being gay, but AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) is my weakness in public," said Liu. On August 2012, Liu learned that he was infected with HIV. Many people would abuse and condemn him on his Sina Weibo page mostly for being HIV-positive. 

"Being a person with AIDS puts more pressure on a person than being gay in China," he concluded. "Many cannot endure the fact that their friends and people they know are affected. They don't know that it's just like diabetes, and it's a disease," said Liu. 

Liu felt angry when he saw reports about him in the media that emphasized him being an AIDS patient and a gay man at the same time. "Although many gay people are infected, it doesn't mean AIDS equals being gay. We don't want the two identities to get mixed up and mislead the public," he said.

By the end of 2013, China had 436,800 reported AIDS patients fighting the disease, and 136,300 reported deaths, according to a Xinhua News Agency report. "We are determined to tell people that we are the same. Living in the same space doesn't pose any danger to others," Liu said.

Liu launched an activity to raise awareness of these issues and express his concerns at 2013's Qixi Festival, the Chinese equivalent to Valentine's Day, on August 13. He went to the crowded Xidan area in Beijing's Xicheng district carrying a sign that read, "Seeking marriage - I am infected with HIV." The activity was aimed at letting people know that AIDS patients are not invisible, and their social needs are also important, said Liu.

"My Mom came to work after the Qixi event and saw my photos all over the place, in newspapers and on online news sites, and her relatives and friends called her about it," said Liu, originally from Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Liu's coming out as gay, then coming out as a person with AIDS, and then going public as an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activist have crushed his family, especially his parents, who hold very traditional values.

Growing following

After winning the medal and being reported on by the media, many people got to know about Liu and many have tried to contact him. His Sina Weibo page has gained thousands of new followers in the past few days. Liu is glad to see more people reaching out to him and expressing their sexual preferences.

"I want to tell everybody to just be themselves," he said. Seeing more homosexual people around him not admitting who they really are, getting forced into traditional marriages and ending up going through painful divorces and broken families, Liu felt that he had to do something.

Before 2008, Liu mostly worked as an event host and radio presenter in Taiyuan. Against the background of a growing number of gay rights campaigns and organizations in China, Liu started volunteering and doing consultation work both online and offline at different LGBT communities and with different NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Shanghai. Liu chose to work in the area of self-awareness when doing LGBT community work, as he feels it's a basic necessity in China.

He has been engaged in NGO work connected to AIDS since 2012 after becoming infected himself, and mainly helps people go through HIV tests as well as consulting those who have just found out they are infected and don't know what to do. In 2013, Liu came to Beijing to work for the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute.

During the grieving segment organized at the Gay Games, Liu couldn't help thinking about his friend Li Hu, a campaigner who fought for the rights of people with AIDS in China, who died on August 6, just days before Liu left for the games. Premier Li Keqiang met Li Hu on November 2012, under the auspices of the World AIDS Day, to show his support for the community. 

"I won't be afraid if I leave the world because of AIDS. Many people will know about this person, named Liu Shi, who is HIV-positive and has done a lot for the community. What should I be afraid of then?"

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