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Govt-backed gay bar fails to attract customers

By Guo Anfei in Dali and Shan Juan in Beijing (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-02 07:38

The idea was simple: Set up a bar to attract gay men and then use it to distribute information on AIDS/HIV prevention.

The media loved the idea -- but all the attention kept the gay men away.

"They (gay men) refused to show up at the opening for fear of media exposure and potential discrimination," said Zhang Jianbo, the bar's founder and a local AIDS doctor in Dali, Yunnan province.

The bar, partially funded by the Dali Health Bureau in collaboration with two local anti-AIDS NGOs that Zhang heads, was meant to facilitate outreach efforts targeting groups facing a high HIV risk, particularly gay men.

Its opening was set for Tuesday, World AIDS Day.

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Zhang said intense media attention surprised him a lot.

"Had I known it, I would not have told the media," he said.

Though there are gay bars in major cities in China, which experts estimate has 30 million homosexuals, including 20 million gay men, the one in Dali was dubbed "China's first government-funded bar for AIDS control" and instantly got widespread media coverage.

"It's understandable," said Luke Zhao, executive editor of Beijing-based Gay Spot magazine. "Factors like government endorsement and support, gay men, HIV/AIDS, naturally made the gay bar so attractive to the press and the general public," he told China Daily yesterday.

"As a long-term medical worker in HIV/AIDS prevention and control, I know how hard it is for us to reach these groups to promote self-protection messages like safe sex," Zhang said.

He managed to establish contacts with more than 1,500 local gay men.

"To sustain and build more of that, I thought of opening a bar for regular get-togethers with them," Zhang said.

"We could teach them about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves from it," he said.

Now no one knows what will happen to a bar with no visitors or even a name.

"But it is at least a good signal that the government is beginning to pay attention to gay people as a vulnerable group facing HIV/AIDS and their health," Zhao said.

The HIV/AIDS prevalence among gay men averages 6 percent in the country and same-sex transmission accounted for about one-third of new HIV infections last year, official tallies showed.

Li Yingqing contributed to the story