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December 21, 2009

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Government-backed gay bar opens doors at last

THE first government-backed gay bar on Chinese mainland has had a low-key opening after being delayed for almost three weeks due to media attention.

A simple ceremony was held to mark the opening on Saturday night in Dali, Yunnan Province.

More than 60 people, mostly gay men, and 10 volunteers, also gay, attended the ceremony. Customers were issued with free condoms.

"Their attendance showed great support - some of them came from outside Dali specially for the opening," Zhang Jianbo, the bar's owner, said in a phone interview yesterday.

The bar was originally scheduled to open on December 1, World AIDS Day, but Zhang delayed it to protect the privacy of volunteers and customers after wide publicity.

"I was worried that the media reports may have discouraged them from coming to the bar again but that did not happen," he said.

No journalists were at the opening ceremony on Saturday night, he said.

Zhang, 36, is director of the dermatological department of the Dali No. 2 People's Hospital and founder of the Dali HIV/AIDS Prevention and Health Association, a non-governmental organization.

"The bar will open every day, from 3pm to midnight," he said.

The minimum charge at the bar is a bottle of Coca-Cola at 5 yuan (73 US cents), and tea and some snacks are free, according to Zhang.

"The charges are just to cover the bar's operation ... we're not aiming for profits," he said.

Zhang and his colleagues hope that the bar can provide a platform to educate gay men about AIDS.

A report last month by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the Ministry of Health alerted China to the spread of the virus among gay men.

Health Minister Chen Zhu said sexual transmission had become the major cause of infection, accounting for more than 70 percent of all newly detected HIV/AIDS cases.

Sexual transmission among gay men accounted for 32 percent.

The ministry and UNAIDS estimate China will have 560,000 to 920,000 HIV carriers, with 97,000 to 112,000 AIDS patients by the end of this month.

"Gay men sometimes cannot find a proper place to exchange ideas with others," said the bar manager, who requested anonymity.

"Here in the bar, they can relieve psychological pressure and educate each other about AIDS, which can help prevent its spread."

The bar was not just exclusively for gay men, Zhang said.

"They are welcome here, but we hope they communicate with gay men peacefully," he said.

A 19-year-old gay university student in Shanghai said he was pleased the bar had finally opened. "It shows the government and general public are more tolerant to us," he said.

Chinese media praised the role of the local government in supporting the establishment of the gay bar.

"The government has no intention of closing the bar, on the contrary, we support it," said Zhao Hui, a spokesman for the Dali government.


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