Comrades of the People's Republic

While traveling in China, our writer explores that country's increasing sexual freedom

Abortion is Reggie's method of birth control, and with China's one-child policy, abortions are easy to come by. Reggie is not worried about disease; he feels Chinese woman are safe, and that the Westerners are, too, because the government requires HIV tests before it grants visas to outsiders. It is true that expats who plan to live in China on extended visas must be tested. But the 30-day visa most travelers use does not require an HIV test, and the people Reggie is most likely to come in contact with in his tourist-destination town -- including the American woman he slept with earlier this year -- hold these short-term visas. In short, Reggie, like most in his generation of mainland Chinese, is completely ill-informed about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and how they are spread.

As China's younger generation becomes sexually freer, giving gays a chance to follow suit, the lack of education about AIDS and safe sex is creating an increasingly dangerous STD situation. The government's Health Ministry admits there are 400,000 HIV cases in China. Given the country's population -- 1.2 billion -- many feel the actual number of infections has to be much, much higher.

An openly gay bar (above) and a straight "love shop," both in Beijing; sexually freer China  has made it easier for gays to be left alone  by the government.
Joel P. Engardio
An openly gay bar (above) and a straight "love shop," both in Beijing; sexually freer China has made it easier for gays to be left alone by the government.

Reggie and Kevin run a small cafe that caters to Western backpackers who pass through their Yunnan province town before beginning the hike through the Yangtze River's expansive Tiger Leaping Gorge. That's where I met them.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" Reggie asked not long after we met.

"No," I replied, pausing for a moment before deciding to see what would happen if I told him the truth. "I have a boyfriend."

"I have many boyfriends, too," Reggie said, clearly not getting it.

I laughed.

"You don't understand," I said. "I have a boyfriend like you have a girlfriend."

Reggie looked perplexed. But then he smiled. Now he got it.

As Kevin sat down at the table, Reggie engaged him in a long conversation in Mandarin. I sat patiently, wondering what they were saying.

"I don't understand this for me, but I can understand it for other people who are this way and are in love. I think it is no problem," Reggie declared.

The young men welcomed me, instantly, as a friend. They insisted I hang out with them as they discussed their lives and asked me questions about mine.

"Tell us more about this topic," Kevin asked; he was especially intrigued when he learned that my boyfriend here in San Francisco is Chinese.

Then Kevin told me about a female friend he grew up with who married an American man and moved to the U.S. Later, she divorced and began dating women. "My friend has told me about these new ideas," Kevin said.

But I was the first openly gay person Reggie had met and could count as a friend.

"I think there must be more gay people in the U.S.A. and not so many in China," he said.

I told Kevin and Reggie about the famous Kinsey study, which asserts that as much as 10 percent of the general population is gay. I also told them about newer studies that say the ratio could be as low as 2 in 100.

"So maybe 5 percent of China is gay," I said.

Again, a flurry of Mandarin between Kevin and Reggie. They seemed to be calculating numbers.

"Wow, 50 million?" Reggie said. "That is so many."

Joel P. Engardio ( can be reached atSF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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