In China, where tradition reigns, homosexuality is no longer taboo. What is the view from those living in the country?
Hong Kong native Joe Lam knew he was different. As a 14-year-old, he began to wonder if he was gay, confused by his attraction to boys. But with no portrayals of gay people in the media, no discussion of gays and no Internet, he wasn’t quite sure what he was. He only knew he was different.
When he was 21, Lam traveled outside of Hong Kong for the first time. In London, he witnessed gay men holding hands on the street, something he had never seen before. Having been exposed to a different world, he returned to Hong Kong and immersed himself in a new life.
He was soon living with his boyfriend and had come to terms with being gay. Yet he had still to confront one major obstacle – he hadn’t come out to his family, worried how his traditional Chinese family would react. For New Year’s dinner, he asked if he could bring his roommate. His mom said yes.
“Let’s be honest, he’s my partner,” Lam told his mom.
“Of course I know, I’m your mother,” his mom replied.
Today, 35-year-old Lam is the publisher of Dim Sum Magazine, Hong Kong’s first gay magazine, as well as festival director of the Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Though his parents struggled with the idea of him being gay at first, Lam said they have come to accept it.
“My mom said to me, as long as you’re happy, I’m fine,” Lam said.
While Hong Kong has long been ahead of China, Lam’s story is an example of China’s changing attitudes towards homosexuality. In a country where homosexuality was once a taboo subject, increasing numbers of Chinese are becoming more tolerant of homosexuality.
Homosexual intercourse has been legal in Hong Kong since 1991. Prior to this, sodomy was illegal, instituted by British colonial rule. Until 2005, there was also an unequal age of consent in Hong Kong. While the age of consent for heterosexual sex was 16, it was set at 21 for sex between males. However, in 2005, it was found to violate the right to equality and was struck down.
As for mainland China, well into the 1990s, homosexuality was considered both a crime and a mental illness in the People’s Republic. Gays were prosecuted under the “hooligan” law while the Chinese Psychiatric Association labeled it a mental disease.
In 1997, the Chinese government abolished the hooligan law, an act considered by most to be a decriminalization of homosexuality. In 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list. The association’s evidence included a 1999 study that followed the lives of 51 Chinese gays and lesbians over the course of a year. The group found that only six of the subjects had emotional disorders.
Since then, the Chinese gay community has rapidly expanded, with dozens of gay bars and hangout spots across the country, hundreds of Chinese gay websites, and many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) organizations. These groups help organize gay rights campaigns, HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, film festivals and pride parades.
Public attitudes are also changing, with many people growing more accepting of gays. The vast majority of educated, young people in urban areas have no problem with homosexuality.
“You’ve got 50 and 60-year-old men coming out, young teenagers coming out, everyone coming out,” says Kenneth Tan, a native Singaporean who has been living in Shanghai for the past seven years. “There is a lot of energy in the scene right now because all these people are coming out for the first time in their life, in the life of the community and the history of modern China. There is a great sense of freshness to the scene.”
Fudan University in Shanghai offered China’s first undergraduate gay studies course in 2003. A China chapter of PFLAG, an organization for parents, family and friends of lesbians and gays, was established in 2007. Gay publications have sprouted up as well as other “gay” businesses, restaurants and shops frequented by mostly gay patrons.
Tong Yu, known as Common Language in English, is a Beijing support and rights group for lesbian and bisexual women founded in 2005. Its founder, Xu Bin, says that at the time there were no lesbian groups and only about thirty gay groups. Now she estimates there are several hundred gay and lesbian groups throughout China.
The Beijing LGBT Center, founded in 2008 by four LGBT groups including Common Language, even began issuing symbolic “marriage certificates” to gay couples.
Hong Kong hosted its first gay pride parade in December 2008, attracting approximately 1,000 people. The second parade was held in November 2009.
2009 also saw the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Lam, the festival director, said last year the festival drew 6,000 visitors, including people from China who came to see films banned on the mainland. Over the years, Lam has witnessed changes in the gay population.
“We used to see quite a few people who would wear big jackets trying to disguise themselves as they go into the cinema, but we’re seeing less and less,” Lam says.
The change is indicative of the growing gay community and the growing numbers of gays coming out in China.
Tan, who serves as editor-at-large for the popular website Shanghaiist.com, has watched the Shanghai scene grow up.
“When I first came here, the bars were hidden and had to be very quiet, and now it’s like we’ve got huge bars that cater to different segments of the population,” he said. “If you’re a middle-aged Chinese gentleman, you go here. If you like big burly men, go here. The scene has developed to the point that you see very measurable social stratification going on.”
China had its first gay pride event in Shanghai in June 2009, consisting of plays, film screenings, discussions and parties scattered throughout one week. The event, called Shanghai Pride, attracted a few thousand people from all over China.
While police did monitor the events and plans for a parade were called off, the fact they were able to hold the event is a testament to the progress China has made. In 2004, a different group tried to hold a similar event in Beijing, but was shut down. Tan thinks the fact that Shanghai is away from the political center of Beijing enabled them to hold the event.
“People didn’t think it was possible,” says Tan, who served as one of the masterminds behind the event. “We had a small, humble start, but it was a good one. These individuals have been coming out for a while and this pride event gives them a reason to come out collectively as a community.”
Even new terminology for the gay community has emerged. Gays have commonly been referred to as “tongzhi” (同志), a term meaning comrades. Lesbians refer to themselves as “lala” (拉拉). The word “ku” (酷) or “ku’er” has also been used to mean queer, but also carries a double meaning as the word “cool.”
Walter Williams, a University of Southern California professor who has been studying gender and sexuality in Asia since 1983, says, “China right now is very similar to the U.S. in the 1960s, in regards to homosexuality…but I think that at the rate China is moving along, we will see China at the forefront of gay liberation.”
Homosexuality has been documented in the country since ancient times. Daoism emphasizes maintaining a balance between yin and yang. Yin was regarded as feminine while yang was regarded as masculine. Every man was considered to contain some yin in him, thus feminine behavior was not considered unnatural.
And though Confucianism emphasized traditional duties of marrying and bearing children, it did not include homosexuality in its list of prohibited practices. Scholars have even concluded that many emperors had male concubines.
“Historically, once the role of getting married and having children was filled, people were free to do what they wanted,” Williams says.
Williams says that many of the negative attitudes toward homosexuality in China are a byproduct of Western colonialism.
“Many people think homosexuality is a European import, but actually it was homophobia that was a European import,” Williams says. “A lot of it was a direct influence from the British coming in establishing colonial power. Many of them were against homosexuals so to avoid persecution, the Chinese took similar attitudes.”
One difference between China and other countries may explain the increasing tolerance of homosexuality: the one-child policy, implemented to stem China’s overpopulation.
“Gays and lesbians fit in quite nicely with China’s population programs,” Williams said. “Why punish people who don’t reproduce when their natural inclination would be to remain non-reproductive? They are model citizens as far as the population policy.”
Another key difference is religion. In the United States, the debate against homosexuality is fueled by Christianity while in Southeast Asia, it’s Islam. However, China has no dominant religion and most Chinese are secular.
“Lack of religion means China in some ways is more accepting,” Williams says. “Any time there is a big cultural change, there will be elements that continue the old way. But to not have a strong institutionalized religion against it allows a gradual evolution of thoughts.”
“Religion doesn’t play such a huge role in social and cultural discourse,” Tan adds. “They don’t look at this thing through a religious or moralistic standpoint. When you come to me and say what I’m doing is a sin, there can be no more discussion because you say what you believe in because God tells you. But in China, there is room for discussion.”
Increasing migration to cities from rural areas may play a role in the opening attitudes toward homosexuality. Many gays like He Xiao and Robin (see Personal Stories above) who originate from small rural towns have only confirmed their sexuality after immigrating to cities for university. In China’s rural areas, homosexuality is mostly not discussed while gay populations are invisible, leaving many gays isolated. Those who come to the city find more resources and can connect with more LGBT people. He, who works in Shenzhen, said many gays choose to work in cities away from their parents for more freedom.
Robin also believes education is a factor. “The higher the education, the easier it is to accept gays,” he said. “They know homosexuality is not a sickness. From what I know, it’s the truth. I’ve changed my school three times, for bachelor’s degree, Master’s, and now Ph.D. Each time, more and more classmates are open-minded toward gays.”
Some attribute the growth of China’s LGBT scene to the influx of expatriates in China. Hannah Miller, an openly gay woman from the United States who lived in Shanghai for seven years, started the group Shanghai LGBT, which now has 1,000 members. She also helped jumpstart and organize Shanghai Pride. Miller says that though the Chinese gay movement was progressing long before she was there, the presence of expatriates allows the community to be more open in organizing events.
“If I get in trouble, I can leave,” she says. “Whereas, Chinese people have families, jobs, they’re subject to laws. So having expatriates helps them to be more public in organization.”
Yet while the increased activity in China’s gay community is proof of its growth, much of Chinese society remains stuck in the past, ignorant of homosexuality. Large generational, educational and societal gaps persist.
“90 percent of the people I know don’t come out to their parents because they are afraid of rejection,” says Xu. Though Xu’s parents know she is lesbian, she avoids discussing her sexuality with them.
“The overall atmosphere is one of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Miller says. “Some people know that members of their family are queer, but if you don’t address it, you are given some level of freedom to live the lifestyle you want to live. If you don’t talk about it, you can pretend nothing happened. Some people think that this system gives more freedom, but it’s unfortunate because it means children feel estranged. There’s no open communication in the family.”
“Some parents know their children are gay, but they still ask them to get married and lead a heterosexual life. Of course some people are afraid of losing their family, so they get married,” Xu says. “Every Chinese has to get married, it’s such a dominating lifestyle. In China, the pattern of family is not diversified. It’s basically heterosexual marriage that everyone needs to go into whether gay or straight.”
In the past, many gay and lesbian Chinese stayed closeted their whole lives, marrying heterosexuals and having children. Sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe has dubbed the wives of gay men ‘homowives,’ estimating there are 16 million of them in China.
However, in recent years, there has been a growing phenomenon of lesbians and gays marrying each other and having children. This arrangement is considered to be mutually beneficial, allowing each to please their parents while leading their own lives. Tan even says a new gay bar in Shanghai named The Box serves to match gays and lesbians.
He, a gay man living in Shenzhen, says he would also consider marrying a lesbian to please his parents, though he hasn’t come out to them yet.
“One of my lesbian friends is actually asking me to maybe get married in the future, so that’s an option,” He says. “I will consider that, if I come out to my parents and they won’t accept it and insist I get married.”
Xu says the phenomenon will eventually disappear. “I think it’s a temporary fix,” she said. “It’s a strategy gay and lesbians use to deal with social pressure. To some people, the cost of coming out is too much.”
Even outside the home, ignorance and misconceptions continue to persist. For Xu’s organization Common Language, volunteers went on the streets in Beijing to ask people what they thought of homosexuality. Many said that homosexuality was imported from Western culture while others said that if all of China is gay, China will die out.
An onlooker zooms by during Shanghai Pride. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Tan.
Xu (see Personal Stories above) began suspecting she was lesbian in high school, but it was only at the age of 25 in 1997 when she first jumped online that she truly understood her sexuality.
“I was really struggling, trying to find information, and I didn’t know any other gay or lesbians,” Xu says. “It was not until the late 1990s when the internet was introduced to China that I fully understood it. Lesbian websites got started and I got connected to other people and that really helped me a lot in identity searching process. I finally found my identity.”
In a country where most newspapers are government-owned and gays aren’t portrayed on television, the internet provided homosexuals with a way to find current information about the gay community and understand their sexuality.
Lam thinks the internet has been a catalyst for the gay community, especially the younger generation.
“Because of internet, younger people know what’s going on in the world,” Lam says. “The younger generation is much more open-minded and willing to stand up and fight for rights.”
Many Chinese have used gay websites such as gayhk.com and fridae.com to meet partners. Tan helped develop gays.com, coined as the social network for the LGBT community.
For some gays like Robin who remain closeted to everyone, the internet has served as their only outlet. Robin uses gay websites such as gaydar.co.uk to meet gay friends around the world.
“For me, it’s everything,” Robin says. “For many Chinese, the Internet is the only way to contact and find gay friends. We don’t need to hide ourselves on the Internet. I can’t imagine how bad my life would be if I could not use the Internet. It has changed my life.”
Yet, even with the Internet, there is still a need for information.
Lam started Dim Sum, the first gay magazine in Hong Kong, in 2002, hoping to provide people with information he didn’t have growing up.
“It’s really bad when you’re young and alone and can’t find any information on being gay,” Lam says. “Before, I was always locked in my bedroom and didn’t know what was going on with the world. If I was young and had read this magazine, I would get a bigger picture and realize I’m not alone.”
However, the lack of discussion may have a surprising benefit—there is less violence toward gays in China.
“It’s been shown in more developed countries where awareness of homosexuality is a lot higher, lots of different sections and opposing camps are free to say what they want, a lot of people are free to hold very polarized views,” Tan said. “This conflict can cause a lot of backlash. But you don’t hear of someone getting killed because they’re gay in China.”
Lam attributes the lack of violence to the Chinese culture, saying, “Chinese people are less aggressive. Even if people don’t like something, they won’t do anything.”
Miller thinks there may be violence against gays occurring in China that simply isn’t publicized. However, she does feel that China may be safer for homosexuals.
“I never felt I was in physical danger in China because of my sexuality, but I have felt that in the U.S.,” she said. “If I’m in a rural American town and men there don’t like the fact that I’m gay, they can be aggressive with me, because it is talked about. But in China, that would never happen because they would never bring it up.”
Still, most Chinese gays and lesbians hope that greater discussion about homosexuality will occur.
“The problem is the government doesn’t do enough to tell people what homosexuality is,” He said. “They won’t encourage or discourage it, but there’s no official information anywhere in China which means many people still have the idea from 20 years ago that gay people are sick.”
While the government hasn’t necessarily supported gay rights in China, Williams thinks the government has come a long way. “China has changed more than any other government in the world in as short a period of time,” he says. “It’s certainly one of the shortest turnarounds than any government in the world. Not that China is perfect, but it has made great strides compared to decade ago.”
At times, local police will sweep parks that are popular hangouts for gay men, arbitrarily arresting and questioning them. Prior to the 2008 Olympics, Dongdan Park in Beijing was the scene of one police crackdown, where some 40 people were arrested at the popular LGBT cruising spot. However, these efforts mostly occur on a local level and are not actions of the central government.
HIV infection has been rapidly rising in Asia, especially among gay populations. Previously, China turned a blind eye to the problem, however the government has began cooperating with gay groups to address the issue. It is believed that the 2003 SARS epidemic sparked these efforts, demonstrating the importance of public health.
“The Chinese government has improved its attitude toward HIV/AIDS,” Williams said. “They used to deny the reality, but they have realized it’s not productive to ignore social issues.”
Williams says that in comparison to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, China is far ahead. Malaysia enforces anti-gay laws, sometimes leading to police beatings, harassment and bloody floggings. LGBTs are not allowed to appear on television or any state-run media while the Islamic faith ensures that most people consider homosexuality immoral.
Although Chinese media coverage of gay activities is not frequent, the government-owned media will occasionally cover LGBT activities. However, gay movies are still forbidden in theaters and on television on the mainland.
“There is a cautiousness about the Chinese government,” Williams says. “They don’t want to make waves. They’re not rabid against homosexuality, they don’t see it as a threat to the future. They just want people to do their work, get along and be a good citizen. That’s great progress compared to decade ago.”
The majority of people acknowledge that the government has made great improvements over the years and predict that the government will eventually adopt a positive stance toward homosexuality.
“I remember when it was so bad that I’m just so grateful for the changes that have been made,” Williams says. “People’s lives are so much better than 20 years ago. I think what we will see is a move from negative to neutral to positive.”
Shenzhen worker He is confident that China will continue to move forward.
“We are experiencing the same things happening in Europe or the U.S. 20 years ago,” He says. “After a certain time, I think our government will open up and face reality.”
Robin agrees, saying, “It just takes time.”
Steffi Lau is a junior at the University of Southern California, majoring in Public Relations and East Asian Languages and Cultures and minoring in Marketing.