Dali’s Gay Bar: A Face-Losing AIDS Campaign
China Central Television (CCTV)’s idea of “universal access and human rights” on World AIDS Day was to broadcast Dali’s first gay bar funded by the prefecture government to encourage AIDS prevention among homosexual males. The original goal of encouraging AIDS awareness was venerable. The Chinese government has come a long way since 2001 when it first admitted AIDS as a public health problem and launched a massive national campaign.
But the result of this most recent publicity was decidedly a face-losing debacle. The local Ministry of Health lost face for shelling out 120,000 yuan on a bar that could not open on World Aids Day. Dr. Zhang and his volunteers lost face for being called 男友 (gay). CCTV and company lost face for transforming a well-intentioned campaign that was supposed to gain face for the Chinese government into a public spectacle. And one can imagine what the tourists to Dali are going to be seeking out: the remains of a ghost pub.
But enough of face-losing. There are several other reasons why netizens should care about this pub ordeal. Reason number one: It should bring to light that journalism ethics matter, especially when reporting on marginalized populations. The CCTV video clip showed photos of individuals presumably without their consent, resulting in marital strife and neighbours’ strange stares at the newly outed gays. The media exposed not only individuals’ sexual orientation but also made it difficult for doctors and volunteers to do AIDS prevention and treatment work for fear of being labeled as 同志 (an older colloquial term literally translated as comrade but referring to homosexuals since the 80s).
Reason number two: it inadvertently drew an equation between homosexuality and AIDS. The most prominent statistic now cited in domestic media now is that same sex transmission comprises of 32% of the total number of transmissions. This statistic may be true, but publicizing it in conjunction with the opening of a gay bar creates a false impression that AIDS is transmitted mostly through “abnormal” sexual behavior.
Reason number three: It has provoked unnecessary speculation about whether the bar could have been a space where homosexuals could have mingled freely. Malcom Moore at The Telegraph has labeled the pub as The Communist Party’s gay bar, poking fun at a stodgy state trying to get with the game. But he forgot that the Dr. Zhang, the bar manager, was speaking to the state media when he said the bar was mostly going to hold lectures and training sessions. Furthermore, the bar is an effort to expand the reach of a local homosexual organization called 好朋友工作组. And Chinese civic organization leaders often use the language of the state while doing something else. No matter. It is useless to speculate about what the pub could have been. What matters is that this incident should prompt state, media, and civic groups to re-think their strategies for an effective AIDS campaign.