BEIJING — State press splashed a front-page photo of China's first publicly "married" gay couple on Wednesday -- the latest sign of new openness about homosexuality in a country where it has long been taboo.
The page-one story in the English-language China Daily featured a photograph of the "newlyweds" arm-in-arm during a January 3 ceremony.
Zeng Anquan, 45, and Pan Wenjie, 27, tied the knot at a gay bar in the southwestern city of Chengdu, the paper said, calling it "the first such public event in the country".
Homosexuality remains a sensitive issue in China. It was officially considered a form of mental illness as recently as 2001. Same-sex marriages or civil unions have no legal basis.
"We are no longer hiding any more. The wedding is our happiest and most precious moment," Zeng, a divorced architect, told the paper.
"Thousands of gays and lesbians get married in France, Finland, the UK. Why couldn't we?"
Although the vast majority of gays in China are believed to remain in the closet, a number of signs have emerged recently that official attitudes may be softening.
Last month, China's first government-backed gay bar opened in the tourist town of Dali in southwestern Yunnan province, after a three-week delay sparked by intense media attention, in a bid to boost HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.
On Friday, the country's first gay pageant is scheduled to be held in Beijing to choose the Asian nation's candidate for the Mr Gay World contest in Norway next month.
China's top state-run radio network plans to launch a new programme this weekend about AIDS that features an HIV-positive host, according to a recent report by Xinhua news agency, which did not mention whether the host was gay.
However, the deep-seated sensitivity of the issue in Chinese society has reared its head in the Zeng-Pan wedding, with the families of the two men reportedly condemning their nuptials.
"My sister warned me she would never call me her brother unless I break up with Pan, and I have answered hundreds of phone calls from friends and relatives who say they feel ashamed of me," said Zeng.
"But we are deeply in love and will never desert each other," he said of his relationship with Pan, a recently demobilised soldier.
More than 200 of the couple's gay friends attended the ceremony, which one of the newlyweds attended in a white wedding dress, the China Daily said, without specifying who was the "bride".
Zeng said the couple feared discrimination and had thus moved to a small town near Chengdu where they were unknown to avoid unwanted attention.
According to Chinese experts cited in press reports, there are an estimated 30 million homosexuals in China, and 20 million of them are men.
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