Moments after Mingshui Xiushu and Wan Ru got married on Oct. 16, the couple hastened into the back of a black Mercedes. Before gunning the engine, the chauffeur glanced at the snuggling newlyweds and asked: "Where's the groom?"

Mingshui and Wan Ru, a lesbian couple, giggled and hid under their matching white wedding veils. "Oh," said the driver, "he must be in the other car."

With a mixture of denial and acceptance, discomfort and support, Chinese society is recognizing that homosexuality exists--hundreds of years after Western missionaries noted the prevalence of love between Chinese men. From a burgeoning gay bar scene in Beijing to semi-open wedding ceremonies in Shanghai and a renewed nationwide AIDS hot line, China's small gay population has begun to come out of the closet after years of arrests and social ostracism.

Chinese researchers recently announced for the first time their estimate of the number of homosexuals in China--between 40 million and 50 million in a population of 1.2 billion. And a researcher specializing in Marxism-Leninism at the University of Public Security, a conservative bastion, submitted an internal report calling on Chinese heterosexuals to study the equality prevalent in homosexual relations.

The incipient openness of homosexual life in China is part of a broad trend in Chinese society toward more personal freedom that has grown during 20 years of economic reforms.

"In our cities, things are freer and freer," said Fang Gang, author of a best-selling book on gay life in China. "And the average Chinese is pretty accepting of these changes. People realize that we lived in a straitjacket for a long time. Now that straitjacket is coming off."

Part of the reason for an easing of attitudes about homosexuality is a realization that if China continues its prudish ways, efforts to combat an already serious AIDS problem will be hampered. The Health Ministry says China has 400,000 carriers of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, although the real number is believed to much higher. While China's government officially says it wants to fight AIDS, a public service announcement on condom usage was pulled off TV last month because of a law banning the advertisement of sex-related products.

China still has a long way to go before homosexuals achieve the level of acceptance they have in most parts of the West. In October, for example, a Beijing court ruled that homosexuality was "abnormal and unacceptable to the Chinese public" and ordered Fang to pay $7,500 to a man Fang identified as a gay bar owner in his book even though Fang did not give the man's name.

While the state generally does not prosecute people for homosexuality any more, families and workplaces continue to be intolerant. Last year, for example, one Beijing family institutionalized their 31-year-old daughter for three months after she announced she was getting a divorce from her husband and wanted to date women. When she emerged from the hospital, she shaved her head in an act of rebellion and found a girlfriend, people who know of her said.

But Zhang Beichuan, a doctor who has studied homosexuality in China for more than a decade, noted: "In China, we really don't have the radical conservatives and the radical liberation activists that you do in the West. We don't see gays being beaten to death in our country because of their sexuality. At the same time, we don't have gay and lesbian parades."

"I wish for a day when we live like the Chinese proverb says: 'Radishes or cabbage, everybody's got the thing they love,' " said Zhang, who publishes a magazine called Friends, designed to let China's gay community know that homosexuality is not a sickness and that safe sex is a matter of life and death.

Slowly, it appears China is making steps toward Zhang's ideal. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1997. (It remains outlawed in 20 American states.) Homosexuality is still officially considered a perversion by the Chinese medical establishment, but the state has stopped committing homosexuals to mental institutions and administering electric shocks to "cure" them. Chinese police in general stopped arresting homosexuals after the charge of "hooliganism," a blanket description for anything the Communists viewed as anti-social, was removed from the books.

In August, Chinese police even released the owner and cashier of the Red Bat teahouse, a homosexual brothel in the southwestern city of Chengdu, after prosecutors determined that there was no law banning the business. China's tough vice laws were written only with female prostitutes in mind.

Several magazines devoted to gay life in China, along with chat rooms on China's burgeoning Internet, have contributed to the growth of the gay community. Gay men and lesbians make much of the virtual community created by the Internet.

Wan Ru and Mingshui credit the Internet for bringing them together--through a Web site called Asia Friend Finder, a personal ad service based in the United States and used by hundreds of thousands of Chinese men and women, both homosexual and heterosexual.

A 24-year-old accountant, Wan Ru said she knew by the time she was 5 that she liked girls more than boys.

"I had a big crush on my teacher. Then when I was 7 or 8, I saw a foreign movie about two women in love. By the time I was in high school I knew I liked girls," she said.

Unlike many Chinese homosexuals, Wan Ru told her family about her preference. Her first serious relationship was with a friend of her elder sister's. Her mother came to her wedding with Mingshui. And the couple often spends weekends at the mother's spacious apartment in a Shanghai suburb, with her sister and her sister's husband and daughter.

Mingshui, 30, is a well-known writer and actress who has written several successful screenplays and starred in China's first TV comedy serial. She first started kissing girls when she was 17. She also kissed boys, she said, but it was less than passionate. Indeed, she said she became nauseated the first time.

Mingshui attended the prestigious Shanghai Drama Academy for her university studies which she remembers as a lonely time. She had six roommates, all attractive women, and she could not tell them she was a lesbian.

She has written two works--a novel and a short story--about homosexual love, but neither has been approved by China's censors, who still ban stories dealing directly with gay relationships. "The works that I am proudest of can't be published," Mingshui said. "Really, we need our own voice. I remember the loneliness I had before. If I had read something then like this, it would have been a big help."

Mingshui hasn't told her parents that she is a lesbian or that she and Wan Ru have moved into a cozy studio apartment in downtown Shanghai. Their marriage is not recognized under Chinese law.

"My mother isn't pressuring me to get married," she said. "For a long time her relationship with my father wasn't very good. She has said she thinks it's better to be alone than in a bad relationship."

Mingshui's views on the issue of acknowledging one's sexual orientation are emblematic of a particularly Chinese way of dealing with the issue. In the West, she said, "coming out" has become a right of passage for the gay community.

"But in China, if there's no big suppression, why should we have a revolution?" she said. "In the West, there's a desire to assert your individuality, but in the space between coming out and not coming out, Chinese think a lot more. If you come out, you will change your family, your work, your friends, your environment. We Chinese think about these issues much more."

CAPTION: Mingshui Xiushu, left, and Wan Ru, were married in China, which has become increasingly open to homosexual couples in recent years.