China city's gay bar opens after media storm

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - A gay bar partially funded by the government of a Chinese city heavily affected by AIDS has finally opened after a delay caused by intense media interest which the owners felt may scared off potential patrons.

Drag queen performers get makeup at a bar in Dali, Yunnan province November 23, 2009. REUTERS/China Daily

Initially scheduled to open on World AIDS Day on December 1, the bar in the southwestern city of Dali had to postpone opening after details were published in the Chinese media.

“The plan was delayed because gay men were worried about potential media exposure and discrimination,” the Beijing Youth Daily quoted founder Zhang Jianbo as saying.

The newspaper said the not-for-profit venue will sell soft drinks and beer at prices cheaper than other local bars, to attract gay men from poorer rural communities.

Details of the bar’s rescheduled opening was only spread by word of mouth between members of the gay community.

“We didn’t want any publicity on the night. We didn’t even publicize the opening on websites for homosexuals,” said Zhang.

Dali, in Yunnan province, is one of the 10 cities in China most affected by AIDS.

The city’s health department is helping fund the venture to reach out to China’s increasingly confident gay community, along with two non-governmental organizations.

The bar will primarily serve as a public gathering place for gay men and will also provide emotional and medical support for them free of charge, the report added.

On the opening night, volunteers staged a play on AIDS prevention and distributed free condoms, it said.

Sexual transmission is now the major cause of HIV infection, accounting for more than 70 percent of all new cases, according to Minister of Health Chen Zhu.

For decades China’s gay community has lived in fear of discrimination and prejudice, with gay venues regularly targeted by police raids and closures.

Gay men often married women to avoid family and society pressures, only daring to meet in secret gatherings.

While large cities like Beijing and Shanghai now have thriving gay scenes, more conservative attitudes still prevail in China’s vast rural hinterland.

Reporting by Beijing newsroom, editing by Miral Fahmy