‘Daddy Peng’ works to raise AIDS awareness in the gay community

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-5 5:03:01

Peng,an AIDS prevention volunteer, hands out condoms and HIV testing kits to passersby in a park. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Despite the bitter cold, "Daddy Peng" picks up his bag full of condoms and HIV testing kits and walks over to a park in Beijing's Dongcheng district. The park has become known as a gathering place for homosexuals in recent years. 

The 59-year-old volunteer originally came from Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province. He has been doing this work at the park for seven years, helping people get tested for HIV and publicly speaking about safe sex. While he wishes for his real name to remain withheld, his nickname "Daddy Peng," given because of his kind manner and tireless spirit, has become widespread.

As soon as he climbs up to the pavilion at the top of the hill, a few people start coming over. A couple pat him on the back and chat with him. A few are meeting Peng for the first time and stand looking curiously at the kits. Peng takes this opportunity to start talking about the importance of safe sex.

"This is the winter time, so only a few people came," he said. "In the summer, the entire path up the hill would be packed with people."

He was drawn into this job because he was passionate about helping this particular group, and he is happy to see that the environment has been improving over the years.

Getting into the field

Peng's daily routine begins with him logging into an online chat room. Hundreds of people are usually online at the same time. This is where Peng talks about the time and place that people can get AIDS testing done.

In the afternoon, he goes to the park and continues his public routine.

Peng got into this field by accident in 2007, when he was introduced to the director of the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, an NGO that runs a number of projects to help the underprivileged in society. He was placed on a program to help the homosexual community.

"We did all sorts of things, and mostly communicated with these people through social activities," Peng said. "We held seminars on safe sex and AIDS prevention."

When the program ended in 2008, Peng and a few other volunteers were taken under the wing of a district branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, doing more or less the same thing - bringing gay people to get HIV testing, talk about safe sex and give psychological counseling.

Coming out

Before being introduced to the NGO and while still working at his previous job, Peng had a gay roommate while on a business trip to Beijing.

The roommate was constantly being harassed by the landlord, so Peng stood up for him. As a result, they started talking to each other. The roommate told Peng there are many people who are gay in Beijing.

At first, Peng was shocked. He didn't know there were people like that. In turn, the roommate suggested that Peng go to the park and a bathhouse in Beijing, both well-known homosexual hangout places.

"It was awkward when I went to the park. Some men came straight up to me and I was filled with fear," Peng said. He hopped on a bus to escape.

But at night, he still went to the bathhouse, wanting to explore their world. He said afterwards that he suddenly realized he was gay and had never acknowledged it.

He had feelings for men, but like many people in China at that time, he thought it wasn't normal, so he held back the urge to have relationships with men and married a woman.

Peng came out to his family after he found out his orientation, and stayed married to his wife.

"A man should always be responsible to his family," Peng said. He didn't want to speak further on the matter, but only said with pride that his daughter is married in Beijing and works as an electrical engineer.

Being a member of the LGBT group helps the volunteer work go smoothly, said Wang Ming (pseudonym), a volunteer who works alongside Peng.

He had been to the park many times and knew that Peng was helping people receive HIV tests, but he only joined in the group after he had seen how people had been helped to get back on their feet.

"One time I saw someone who fell off the staircase path of the hill because he had just tested positive for HIV," he said. "He was so afraid that his knees gave in and he didn't know what to do after we helped him up."

But Peng never gives up, Wang said. After seeing how Peng always talks to people and tries to guide them, he decided to join the team. 

Change for the better

Over the years, Peng has seen attitudes change for the better.

He remembers the first time he took someone down to an HIV testing center in 2008. The patient had known him because he heard Peng speak publicly and trusted him. But when Peng took him to the center, the worker there shouted in disdain, "Who? Who wants to do the testing?" Such attitudes can be discouraging, Peng said.

"Back then, when the doctors asked for the patient's identification card, he handed out a magazine and asked the patient to put it on there," Peng said. "It's already hard enough for people to go to these centers to do testing. Who would go after being treated like this?"

But he was happy to see improvements. The doctors are getting more professional. Many are happy to cooperate with grass-roots organizations, and more people are learning about the disease and about homosexuality in general.

Since retiring, Peng has focused on his work at the park. Sometimes he also gets invited to give speeches. On World AIDS Day on Monday, he was invited by the Beijing YouAn Hospital to talk at an HIV testing event.

Though Peng is happy he is recognized and invited to many talks, he only wants to work behind the scenes.

"I hope everybody can pay more attention to this group, as well as the grass-roots workers in the field, and not only during World AIDS Day," he said.

Newspaper headline: Helping hands

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