China opens state-backed gay bar to fight spread of Aids

China's first government-backed gay bar has finally opened, very discreetly, after the original scheduled launch was delayed for almost three weeks due to intense media attention.

The bar, which receives government funding from the health bureau in the south-western province of Yunnan, was originally due to open on 1 December to mark World Aids Day, but Zhang Jianbo, the owner, delayed it to protect the privacy of the volunteers and customers after a media scrum.

The opening, attended by more than 60 people, was a cause for celebration for health workers determined to improve outreach to a large gay community increasingly at risk from Aids, and is a sign of China's increasingly comfortable relationship with homosexuality, which has long been taboo.

"Their arrival gave me great support. Some of them came from outside Dali specially for the opening," Mr Zhang told the Xinhua news agency. Mr Zhang is a doctor at a local hospital and founder of the Dali HIV/Aids prevention and health association, the organisation behind the initiative.

Homosexuality was considered a mental illness in China until 2001. But China's cities have many gay bars and nightclubs which operate without interference from the authorities. Gay men and women face powerful pressure, because of social taboos, and also because China's one-child policy makes parents require their only child to marry and have grandchildren. They often marry and have a child, but live active homosexual lives in secret.

A UN report released last month showed a sharp rise in the spread of HIV/Aids among gay men. Figures show that as of the end of October, the number of Chinese confirmed to be living with HIV/Aids was 319,877, up from 135,630 in 2005. But the health ministry believes that the actual level of infection was probably nearer 740,000.

Yunnan province is home to nearly a quarter of China's reported HIV and Aids cases. Some 40 per cent of new HIV infections diagnosed were acquired through heterosexual contact, with gay sex accounting for 32 per cent.

Whatever its benefits in terms of health awareness, the bar has another plus: value. The charge at the bar for a bottle of Coca Cola is five yuan, or around 45p, and tea and some snacks are free, according to Mr Zhang.

"The charges are just for what we need to run the bar, and we are not aiming for profits. Customers need not worry about that," he said.

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