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State-funded gay bar closes amid media storm

A government-funded gay bar in Dali, Yunnan Province, southwest China, has been forced to close even before its official opening ceremony after national media coverage provoked public controversy.

The bar, which had opened on a trial basis in November, was due to stage its official launch on World AIDS Day, December 1st, but widespread coverage by China Central Television (CCTV), Beijing News and other major media outlets appears to have deterred both customers and volunteers who were provide HIV/AIDS awareness training in the bar.

The project was the brainchild of long-time HIV/AIDS volunteer and activist Dr Zhang Jianbo of Dali Number 2 People's Hospital. His aim was to create a space where gay men could meet and socialize and also receive education on how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Many young gay men in Dali are recent immigrants from the countryside and have little or no knowledge of how to practice safe sex.

But after CCTV and other media broke the story of the bar on 29 November, Number 2 People's Hospital found itself at the center of a media storm. Staff told reporters from the Chongqing people.com website that "the phones are ringing non-stop" and that they were "fire-fighting."

It seems Dr. Zhang was interviewed by officials and asked to give a written account of his interview with CCTV. Restrictions were placed on his contacts with the media and volunteers working with him were asked withdraw from the bar and told not to reveal its address.

One consequence of the media publicity was that some of the dozens of AIDS volunteers who work with Dr Zhang found themselves in the spotlight and labeled as gay. Some found that friends and family shunned or ridiculed them, neighbors avoided them, and their colleagues gave them strange looks at work.

One of the volunteers told journalists from people.com the volunteers were extremely angry at the media coverage and especially with CCTV.

"When the CCTV journalists came to interview us, and report on the day-to-day work of AIDS volunteers, they did not let us see their report, they also did not seek or get the consent of the people they interviewed."

The media carried photographs of customers and volunteers in the gay bar. But in socially conservative China, parental pressure means many gay men are married and are desperate to keep their gay lives secret from their families.

Some were effectively outed as gay by the media reports and are now seeing their personal life shattered. In some households there has even been talk of divorce.

Li Jun, head of the Dali health bureau, said the media reports and publicity had also attracted curious visitors that had disrupted the normal work of the volunteers.

A government official clarified the extent of government funding to the Xinhua news agency. "The government earmarked 120,000 yuan (US$17,576) to a social group that runs the pub" said Jiang Anmin, deputy director of the Dali health bureau, according to Xinhua.

Dr Zhang said the bar was also funded by the English charity Barry and Martins Trust and by the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Dali has one of the worst rates of HIV/AIDS infection in the country. Home to just 3.5 percent of China's population Yunnan has 23 percent of the country's people living with HIV/AIDS. One of the reasons is the high rate of intravenous drug abuse. The nearby border with Myanmar is a major trafficking route for drugs produced in the Golden Triangle.

Since the media publicity, Dr Zhang's plan has been condemned by many people. Some call it absurd, others call it evil. But he remains determined that no matter what the pressure, he will carry on with his work and that, after the media storm passes, his project will continue.

"The pub will open sooner or later," he told Xinhua.