Liu Shujie, a member of the family planning association of Wuchang district of Wuhan, capital city of Central China’s Hubei Province, encouraged family planning delegates to offer advice to gay people.

She told delegates at the Shenzhen conference that she had decided to provide gay-friendly sex education in 2003, due to overwhelming demand. She described a boy who “broke into tears, saying the man he loved walked away from him after finding out he was gay. I was really puzzled and did not know what to do,” she said.

In her province, Ms Shujie said there were in the region of 20, 000 lesbians and 100 000 gay men, though there were only 18 gay bars in the area. She had visited these bars, trying to raise awareness on HIV prevention, and had introduced 200 homosexuals to her sex education programme.

Although homosexuality in China is no longer considered a mental illness, it is still taboo. Ms Shujie said that many gay men were married with children because they could not admit to their sexual feelings.

“Most of the elder gay men have wives and children, but they are hiding their sexual orientation from their family,” said Ms Shujie. “The wives live a miserable life with husbands who cannot love them.” But, as the level of giggling and embarrassment during her speech at the conference showed, the social stigma attached to being gay is still very strong in China.

“I hope they can get care and support from the public,” Ms Shujie told the delegates, adding that her programme was critically short of funds. Though her speech ended to sustained applause, there is clearly a long way to go before homosexuality is accepted in China.