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Brian Newkirk: Supporting AIDS fight in China

Surprised by an award for his support for the fight against AIDS in China, Brian Newkirk took the stage to give impromptu thank-you remarks during China AIDS Walk’s second Great Wall walk on October 13. 

“I walk because I want to end AIDS,” Brian said. “I lost too many friends because of it back in the 80s. And I cannot think of a better revenge.”

It was the second time Brian took part in China AIDS Walk. And for the second time, he brought with him a sizable donation. This year alone, he raised over 15,000 dollars for the program (as of the end of the Walk), and came all the way from Los Angeles to hand over the money.

An emotional Brian receiving his reward. "I was fighting back my tears." Brian said. Photo: Courtesy of Brian

‘We are in this together’

I met Brian at the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing for an interview, knowing nothing about the man except that he is an avid supporter of the AIDS cause.

I did not find much information about Brian on the Internet other than the fact that he is husband of Loren S. Ostrow, a long- time member of the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, which is one of the sponsors of China AIDS Walk. “I learned that your wife is…” That’s how I began my conversation.

Brian is a perfect gentleman. He waited until I finished my question before correcting me with a smile, “He is not my wife. He is my husband.” Only then did I realize that Brian is gay.

“Oh don’t worry, a lot of people make that mistake because of the name Loren,” Brian tried to put me at easy as I apologized. He went on to tell me how supportive Loren was of him and his effort to support China AIDS Walk. “I missed our anniversary for two years in a row doing this,” Brian said, “But he was so understanding. He knows it is important to our world to do this. I am a very lucky guy.”

Brian and Loren have been together for over 20 years. They got married when gay marriage was first legalized in California in 2008. Brian said he also missed one of his best friends’ wedding because of his China trip. “But it is worth it. We are in this together. The disease knows no boundary. ”

“This disease is not a judgment upon anybody’s character. It’s a disease.” Brian said, “I would love to see the end of AIDS in my life time. And I would do anything in my power to serve that purpose.”

But surely there was something else that prompted him to go through this much trouble. Brian told me a story from his first China AIDS Walk experience.

Brian at China AIDS Walk 2013. He loves the APP that could make duplicates of one's image and edit them into the picture. Photo: Courtesy of Brian

Brian was one of the people who participated in China AIDS Walk since the very beginning. The first time around, he raised 10,000 dollars. In the gathering afterwards, the organizer invited a nine-year-old boy and his father who was living with HIV to meet the walkers.

“He was such a cute little boy,” Brian recalled. “He told us the humiliations he had to go through because of his father’s condition. In the end he thanked us for helping his father. And I was so touched.”

After the event, the boy’s father approached Brian. The man and his little boy were the direct beneficiary of Brian’s donation. Through a translator, the man promised that he will teach his son to “give back to the world the way you do.”

The man’s words took Brian’s breath away, literally. “I told myself, my job is done. If I could get one person to think that way, to give back to the world, then maybe we can change this world and stop this crisis, and stop a lot of other things.”

“To be honest, I hesitated about coming again this year to participate in the Walk. The little boy and his father changed my mind. I told myself I would come no matter what,” Brian said.

Committed to a global cause

Brian is a successful theatre actor in Los Angeles. The China Walk takes place at a busy time of the year for him. He had to move his schedules around in order to visit China. But Brian didn’t seem to mind very much. He told me about how he came to know about the China AIDS Walk.

Photo: Courtesy of Brian

Through the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, Brian got to know Xiaogang, the initiator of the Walk, who announced to a roomful of people that he wanted to do a Walk on the Great Wall of China and asked for support.

“I looked around the room and realized I was the best one to help,” Brain said, “I don’t have to take up a nine-to-five job, and I am well connected with people who have some money. I think I could raise quite a bit.”

Not knowing whether the idea of doing an AIDS Walk on the Great Wall would be welcomed by the Chinese government, Brian admitted he was “terrified”. “But I wanted to put myself on the line for this cause as Xiaogang did,” He said.

The experience of a previous trip to South Africa helped him to put his fear in perspective and reaffirmed his determination to help. “I learnt all about Nelson Mandela,” Brian revealed, “And I realized sometimes you just have to give yourself knowing that you might take a hit for the greater good, like Mandela did. To me that was the moment when I decided to give myself and go wherever they send me no matter what is going to happen in China.”

What Brian has done for China’s fight against AIDS is not merely his donations. Through his effort of raising money, he has helped to spread the message that in China, too, the gay community is pulling together and fighting for the cause.

Brian said he was even asked the question “do they have AIDS in China?” It gave him great sense of fulfillment telling people what is happening in China and seeking help from them. “I have had a little child wanting to donate a quarter to me for China AIDS Walk,” he said, “This is how we make a difference.”

“I think it’s important that we start taking care of the world instead of just taking care of ourselves,” Brian continued, “In China, I saw I am part of a larger community even though I am an American. I feel the connection with my brothers and sisters.”

Helping Chinese gay community

Three years ago, when Brian first came to China, he went on a tour in China’s Guangdong province to meet the people and the organizations that are only starting to gather together and help the community to live a better life.

“You are where we were about 30 years ago. And this is one of the things we are able to impart.” Brian said he was grateful to have had opportunities as such to share his personal stories and help people who are going through similar things.

The difference in reality between these two countries is eye-opening for Brian, too. “In America we feel the blaseness. Here I see the newness of things, people discovering themselves for the first time. I’ve been asked questions about intimate things. It’s almost like an innocence, which is wonderful to see.”

Having had a difficult time coming out to his family and only just reconciling with his estranged father after 30 years, Brian was delighted to see organizations such as PFlag (an NGO formed by LGBT individuals, their parents, friends and supporters to serve and support LGBT people) hard at work for the community. “The family structure is different in China than in the US. I could have a great life without my parents’ involvement. But here the thought of losing one’s parents is a huge problem for people. That’s why people in PFlag are doing wonderful work.”

“We went to a PFlag meeting in Guangzhou and talked to about 30 or so parents. I shared with them what I have been though with my father and I was so happy to see that my story have helped to ease some people’s pain and offered them hope,” Brian said with a sense of satisfaction.  

Brian in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Brian

When asked about whether he will come back for the third year for China AIDS Walk, Brian said that it might be difficult to move things around three years in a row. “But I kind of have to. Because I have publicly said so myself when they gave me that award!” Brian laughed.

Yes, the emotional Brian did say to the crowd that next year when he comes back, he wants to see 10 coaches, rather than five (which carry people to take part in the Walk). “I know they probably won’t hold me to that. But I will,” Brian said, “I will see what I could do.”

Brian left a deep impression with his simplicity and honesty - there was no theatrics, no flamboyance, just a guy sitting down and recounting his life story to a person, who, just a few days ago, was a total stranger. The cause of fighting against AIDS and fighting for the equal right and a better life of the LGBT community transcends nationality. Just like Brian said, “We are in this together.”

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