March 1 has been appointed by UNAIDS as International Zero Discrimination Day, aiming to combat discrimination towards people living with HIV/AIDS. The day was first launched in 2014 with a major event in Beijing. China’s Center for Disease Control reports that those living with HIV/AIDS in the country amount to over 6 million, the main form of transmission being sexual contact. The center also estimates that between 2010 and 2016, cases of HIV infection among older men increased more than threefold. While unawareness of the disease is a factor in the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among them, another great factor is the widespread discrimination they face.
China’s longest surviving man living with HIV/AIDS, 56-year old Ming Lin (not his real name), recently shared his story: “after being infected with HIV in the 80s, I’ve taken antiviral medicine for 22 years.” A member of a growing group of middle aged and older men living with HIV/AIDS, Lin lives alone with his two dogs in Beijing. Even though his dogs provide him company, he is at an age where he would like to find a partner. He finds the virus to be the greatest obstacle towards finding someone to share his life with.
In the beginning, Lin just thought he was abnormal for having no interest in women, but he dared not admit it for fear of being looked down upon. When he had his first sexual experience at a gay bathhouse in Beijing, he finally realized that he was oriented towards men. At a time when there were no nightclubs, no cell phones and no internet, he was just coming to terms with his sexual identity and becoming part of the circle of gay men living in the city. At the same time, China reported its first case of HIV contraction in Beijing. Feelings of fear and helplessness quickly spread through gay circles, as everyone tried to connect the dots and see who could be infected. “Ever since the 1988 news of the first HIV case in Beijing, I suspected I had already been infected,” Lin recalls.
In 1995, Lin began to experience diarrhea, rashes, fevers and spells of memory loss. Shortly after he was officially diagnosed as HIV positive, confirming his fears. In response, he moved away from his family in order to prevent them from being infected. To combat the virus, Lin started taking antiviral medication every day. Aside from oral medication, he also sometimes applies an ointment. As he has aged, he’s found it difficult to apply the ointment on his own back, which exacerbates his loneliness. As he says, “whether it’s old people or young people, we all have feelings and psychological needs.”
He also shares that what he most fears is not spreading the virus to others, but rather the humiliation of telling others he is infected. After his HIV status was revealed in a public HIV/AIDS awareness video, Lin felt like he had been excommunicated by his friends. In addition, he left his job and spent the Spring Festival holidays completely alone. “Just like me, there are many people who contract HIV and go through life hiding in a dark corner, unable to accept themselves for contracting such a shameful virus. Some of these people take their secret to the grave with them,” he added.
That was years ago. Lin now works for an AIDS Charity, fighting for those living with HIV/AIDS to stand up and tell the world that HIV is the same as any other chronic disease. “The day when HIV/AIDS infection is viewed the same way as a cold is the day that I’ll share my real name,” Meng Lin says. In order to combat the harm and spread of HIV/AIDS, we must first refuse discrimination and lead those living with the disease out into the open where they can again experience a sense of social belonging.