December 4, 2009

CHINA’S FIRST state-backed gay bar, aimed at educating homosexuals about HIV/Aids, stayed empty during its official opening as intense media attention greeting its launch kept customers away.

The bar, in the town of Dali, is unusual because it receives government funding from the health bureau in the southwestern province of Yunnan. It had been due to open on Tuesday to mark World Aids Day, but the Xinhua news agency reported the opening was delayed by the local government “due to pressure”.

The delay prompted an editorial in yesterday’s China Daily newspaper calling for a more liberal approach to gay bars in China.

“It seems the Dali government was not well-prepared for the ethical debate that might arise from the government investment in the gay bar,” it said. “However, if the government had adopted a relaxed approach, it might have averted the moral risks.”

Punters and the government were rattled by the publicity surrounding the opening.

“They were scared their identity would be revealed, that it would lead to misunderstanding and changes in their lives,” said Zhang Jianbo, a doctor at a local hospital and founder of the Dali HIV/Aids prevention and health association, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) behind the initiative.

Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in China until 2001, but China’s cities have many gay bars and nightclubs which run without pressure from authorities.

Gay men and women face powerful pressures because of social taboos – and because China’s one-child policy makes parents expect that their only child will marry and bear them a grandchild.

Many gay men will marry and have a child, but will live active homosexual lives in secret. Some activists say this practice makes data about the extent of HIV/Aids in China unreliable.

Data show that as of the end of October, the number of Chinese confirmed to be living with HIV/ Aids was 319,877, up from 264,302 last year and 135,630 reported in 2005. The health minister believes the level of infections was probably nearer to 740,000.

Some 40 per cent of new HIV infections diagnosed were acquired through heterosexual contact, while homosexual sex accounted for 32 per cent.