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China's First Homegrown Gay And AIDS Activist, Wan Yan Hai
Published on Sunday, July 9, 2000 in the San Jose Mercury News
China's First Homegrown Gay And AIDS Activist, Wan Yan Hai
by Daniel C. Tsang
 
HISTORIAN Howard Zinn, in the June issue of the Progressive magazine, calls for replacing portraits of presidents in our schools with those of ``grassroots heroes.'' Indeed, the true heroes of this postmodern era are neither presidents on Pennsylvania Avenue nor CEOs of dot-coms.

As national borders become permeable and governments less important, political scientists pay more attention to the role of grassroots organizers and non-governmental organizations in international relations.

One such grassroots activist -- essentially a one-man NGO -- is China's first homegrown gay and AIDS activist, Wan Yan Hai. At 36, surviving on grants and the generosity of friends, he is a perennial globetrotter. He travels frequently between the Los Angeles area and Beijing and attends conferences as far away as Australia to network and carry on his work. And his Chinese-language Web sites educate and promote a more liberated view on sexuality and sex education.

Wan has made a name for himself as China's most visible activist on these issues. But rather than lobbying policy-makers in Washington or even Beijing, he is working to get information directly to gays, people with AIDS and educators in China. He is one of a group of Chinese scholar-activists adapting what they learn in the West to try to influence events at home.

Fired from health post

In 1992, while still living in Beijing, Wan created China's first AIDS hotline. A year later he was unceremoniously fired from his post as a public health official on orders of Communist Party officials. But he persisted, eventually attaining grants from such sources as the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation and earning a fellowship at the University of Southern California.

I met Wan at a 1997 prostitution conference sponsored by the Center for Sex Research at California State University-Northridge. In early 1998, he stayed with me for a month, taking over my PC and spending his days, and nights, online. Listening to strains of China's national anthem and ``The East is Red'' in my living room, Wan seemed lost in another world and culture. His passion for China came through.

Later that year, we both ended up in Hong Kong at the first Chinese Tongzhi Conference to be held after China took back the former British colony. Tongzhi, which means comrade, has been appropriated by the Chinese gay movement as the preferred term for gays.

In Hong Kong these days, street newstands readily carry gay male pornography magazines from Taiwan. Ironically, the new libertinism is a far cry from the days of a nominally more free, but sexually more uptight, British colonial regime.

As the Tongzhi meeting showed, Wan is not alone in his work. A few years ago, I was present at a Los Angeles meeting at which Wan and several other overseas Chinese formed the Committee of the Chinese Society for the Study of Sexual Minorities. The group now operates a Web site (www.csssm.org) that seeks to change the Chinese mental health establishment's disease-driven model of homosexuality.

Another site, Nan Feng (Male Wind; www.chinarainbow.org/nanfen), an online gay journal of the Los Angeles-based China Rainbow Association, publishes essays and stories about sexual diversity in Chinese.

Wan also devotes his time to a Chinese-language site called Aizhi Action (www.aizhi.org) -- aizhi being a play on the Chinese term for AIDS. That site seeks to educate readers about various sexual orientations, and posts translated versions of research reports from the Oakland-based Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and a Manhattan-based sex education group.

Wan's latest fascination: Uncovering the conservative, family-values ideology of the Unification Church, which, he says, is getting the support of various Chinese bureaucracies to spread its gospel in China.

In the modern Web-bound global village, media critic Marshall McLuhan may be right: The medium, after all, is the message. Text-driven (in Chinese script) and devoid of fancy graphics or any multimedia options, Wan's aizhi Web site seems to cry out: ``This is a serious site with important information.''

That approach may be a death-knell in our commercially driven culture, but in China, where Web access is costly and still largely dependent on 56-K modem hookups, it is the content that matters, not all the bells and whistles. Unlike foreign missionaries of old who tried to convert a ``heathen'' culture, Wan and other modern-day proselytizers of sexual diversity have their roots in China and know the culture.

In another day and age, Sun Yat Sen, the founder of republican China, sought assistance from overseas Chinese to overthrow the Ching dynasty. These days, the Chinese government is preoccupied with more important affairs of state, such as getting into the World Trade Organization. Gay activists are the least of its worries.

Not viewed as a threat

With his foot in both cultures, fluent in English as well as in his native tongue, Wan is able to survive in China because he explicitly eschews the traditional form of politics and thus is no threat to the ruling party apparatus. Yet transnational efforts such as his will, in the long-run, revolutionize sexual politics.

In the 1930s, German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, considered the leading homosexual emancipationist, lectured on homosexuality to doctors and nurses in Hong Kong, as well as on Radio Hong Kong. Shortly thereafter, his Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin was ransacked in the Nazis' first book-burning. The Jewish pioneer would later die in exile; he left what remained of his estate to Li Shiu Tong, a onetime sexology student from Hong Kong who had become Hirschfeld's lover.

Li's father, according to Charlotte Wolff's biography of Hirschfeld, told Hirschfeld: ``It is my wish and my hope that my son will one day become the Dr. Hirschfeld of China.''

Last August the World Congress on Sexology, meeting in Hong Kong, paid tribute to Hirschfeld and issued a call for information about Li, who would now be in his 90s if he were alive. Straddling both countries, Wan is a modern day sexual emancipationist carrying on Hirschfeld's -- and Li's -- legacy.

Daniel C. Tsang (dtsang@uci.edu) is a bibliographer and alternative radio host at the University of California-Irvine. On Tuesday the American Library Association will recognize him for outstanding achievement in promoting the acquisition and use of alternative materials in libraries.

2000 Mercury Center.

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