HE received no training in counselling, and yet when mainland journalist Fang Gang is at home he often finds himself taking on a largely unexpected role - that of agony aunt to one of China's underworld populations, the homosexuals. All this came in the wake of his controversial research into a group now estimated to number between four million and 12 million. Moved by their sheer numbers, Fang felt he must help do away with the traditional layer of secrecy surrounding them. So he began a 10-month investigation into the backgrounds and other personal details of homosexuals, visiting their homes and popular hangouts in a string of northern cities. And the outcome of his efforts is two-fold: a book Homosexuals in China, which is due to be released in Hong Kong this month, and the unexpected attention from gays he did not interview. 'Last night one called from Chengdu,' Tianjin-based Fang said during a telephone interview. 'We talked for more than an hour. Those who have called me said afterwards they found me the right person to talk to. They told me of the frustrations of being a homosexual; that it was hard living among people who would not accept them.' Fang thinks more than half of the Chinese population, and most homosexuals themselves as well, consider homosexuality a form of abnormality. A survey in Shanghai, a city with a noticeable population of homosexuals, as has Beijing and Tianjin, found that 80 per cent of them were living in distress, afraid of their special inclination being known by others. How the callers got Fang's number is beyond his guess, but it is likely they had heard of him from media reports about his attempt to profile gay life in China. The attempt was a controversial one; while Hong Kong's Cosmos has brought the Chinese-language rights of his book, so far no mainland publishers have agreed to put his accounts into print. Refusing to speculate on the chances of his book being published in China, he said he was only hoping that a clearer picture would emerge by the end of this month. Without giving the exact details, he said he had once 'got into trouble' for depicting sensitive subjects. Yet he is clearly undaunted. His other book, due for publication this summer, dwells on the controversial subject of beauty pageants. Such events have for years been banned across China. He is the second mainlander to write about homosexuals. China's first book on gays, Their World, was the work of an academic couple and published by a little-known mainland publisher two years ago. Films and magazine articles have also been devoted to the same subject. Fang, 27, takes a different path by revealing the innermost feelings of more than 50 homosexuals in various northern Chinese cities. Lesbians are only briefly covered, simply because they generally adopt a much lower profile and are therefore harder to find. 'I went to places like coffee shops or some quiet lanes that are rumoured to be frequented by them, but I couldn't find any,' said Fang, a former reporter for the Tianjin Workers' Daily and now a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines. 'They probably prefer to stay indoors.' In Beijing, there are more than 100 places well-visited by gays, among them parks, public toilets and public bathing pools. Even though China has no law against homosexuality, most gays and lesbians depicted in Fang's book, with varying age and educational levels, are worried that once their identity is exposed they will be discriminated against. The bulk of his interviewees have kept their illicit affairs under wraps, while struggling hard to develop an interest in the opposite sex. Fang said he had been told of cases of park wardens hitting strollers they suspected of being homosexuals. Authorities in Tianjin have also closed a few public toilets frequented by homosexuals. 'I have only heard of a few homosexuals in China who have come forward and openly declared their sexual preference,' he said. Many bow to social pressures and get married. There are others with a strong desire to become what society sees as normal. As part of his fact-finding mission, Fang posed as a doctor (with the help of a real doctor in Tianjin) and paid an informal visit to a family upset over their young, homosexual son, in Hubei province. The young man discovered his sole, peculiar interest in boys while he was in junior high school. By the time he reached university, he was deeply attracted to a schoolmate, who became a good friend of his, but ran away after the man told him that he wanted him to be his lover. The man was dejected. After graduation, his family began introducing him to girls, but he wasn't interested. He then told his family the truth. The family shared the view that the man, now in his mid-20s, should try to change. So throughout the last year they took him to different doctors and psychologists in Beijing and Tianjin. Now he has been going out steadily with a girlfriend and is optimistic of having an intimate relationship with her. Fang takes a liberal view on homosexuality. It could be a form of innate desire or a result of one's social environment, he says: 'They are like any other people except their sexual inclination. They should have the right to choose their own lifestyle.' He is aghast, however, at middle-aged men making sexual advances to boys. He also suspects homosexuality exists among peasant labourers who have flocked to cities en masse in search of jobs, and who often take shelter in the same places. 'My book has not covered everything,' he admitted. As with many others, a natural concern is the spread of AIDS. What worries Fang most is that some gays are promiscuous. Two of the six confirmed AIDS carriers in Beijing last year, he said, were gay. 'After I finished writing the book, I discovered a man in his 50s who has had more than 300 sexual partners. It's really dangerous,' he said. In the Chinese capital, AIDS education has already begun with the launch of a hotline two years ago. Seminars have also been held to enhance people's knowledge of the disease. The author is hoping the day will come when homosexuals are treated as equals by the public. 'I think it is most important that public attitudes towards them change,' he said. 'I don't know what more the government should do.'