What It Is Like to Be Gay in China?

Holly Lenny

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Two gay men in Hong Kong kissing- Photo Credit- Flickr- Ryanne lai

Homosexuality has existed in China throughout many of the ancient dynasties, although during the 1840s this changed through westernisation. Similarly to ancient Rome, enjoying a homosexual relationship simultaneously to a heterosexual relationship was common practice. In the People’s Republic of China homosexuality was illegal from around the twentieth century right up until it was officially legalised in 1997 and removed from the list of official mental health illnesses in 2001.

Russia, China’s next-door neighbour has recently been in the media lately not only for hosting The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics but in relation to it’s repugnant stance on homosexuality. The abominable hateful animosity towards homosexuals, in particular men, through many belligerent assaults some involving death have sent shockwaves around the world. People are divided on the subject. Religion, politics, culture, along with many other factors have been taken into account as viable arguments as to why homosexuality is eroding society giving substance for the gruesome witch-hunt to eradicate homosexuality altogether.

Gay rights activists kiss as they are detained by police officers during a gay rights protest in St. Petersburg October 12, 2013
Gay rights activists kiss as they are detained by police officers during a gay rights protest in St. Petersburg October 12, 2013- Photo Credit- Flickr- Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

To gain an insight into what it is like to be gay in 2014 of the People’s Republic of China, I decided to get in touch with two women that identify themselves as lesbians, each in their early twenties and attending university. Having spent nearly three weeks in China myself I had seen both young men and women who you might say, gave the impression they were gay although they never revealed this nor was it talked about. This left me wondering, was their sexuality a taboo subject in China that simply wasn’t discussed or maybe coming from Europe where everyone likes to distinguish ‘the gays’ from ‘the straights’ was becoming a subconscious exercise. The underlying desires to categorise people into certain groups. Through my eyes everyone appeared to treat each other equally. Maybe this was just something I wasn’t familiar with coming from the West?

 With the two conversations I had with both girls from China they each have the same sexual preference, girls, although unfortunately one has a more positive story to tell than the other. It first became clear to Anna when she was 13 years old that she was attracted to girls, confusion was met with surprising support from friends as she never realised there was an actual term to define her sexual preference. Anna and her friend Blair like most young teenage girls were always together, shopping, chatting, the usual, but when it came to boys their opinions were different. “That boy over there is handsome,” Blair would say. The same response was met with Anna, “I don’t know, I just have no feelings towards boys”. With this honest declaration nothing changed for Anna in terms of her friendships, just the ongoing confusion within her head. The question why she felt different in comparison to her friends. Anna’s parents are belonging to the conservative generation where even curfews exist in your early twenties and the pressures are worse than ever to succeed. This is obvious proof that the debate of homosexuality is not something to be discussed and Anna’s sexual preference is only to the knowledge of her friends. The question many parents ask themselves is “what did I do wrong?”.

Chinese LGBT activists
Chinese LGBT activists- Photo Credit- Flickr- InSapphoWeTrust

Marriage is a heated subject in China as its importance still remains crucial in society and it is when a son or daughter transcends into their mid-late twenties the subject gains a greater significance. Anna is currently single but her hopes to be happily married to a woman still remain meager as the underlying pressures from her parents, in particular, her mother hover their influence. “This is in your best interest” is the reoccurring verdict Anna is accustomed to hearing all too often. “I have no choice,” Anna affirms, she has already internalised the dominant values of her mother and obedience is something to adhere to. On the contrary, her father’s opinion is in contrast to her mother’s, as he is somewhat liberal and open for his daughter to experience the outside world of China. The discussion was firmly defied as Anna’s mother felt it was “in her best interest” to remain under her watchful eye.

Bonnie is the stereotypical ‘butch’ lesbian, she wears men’s clothes and a short hairstyle. It was during primary school she realised she was gay. Having told her mother, she was neither resistant nor supportive of her daughter, but at the tender age of ten years old she had no idea how to address the situation. It is only as girls become older they realise this isn’t the dominant stance in society, homosexuality is the minority preference and this is why many men and women fear of hurting their parents. Bonnie’s mother’s attitude changed slightly towards her as she began to go out but it was that of a concerned mother. Her stance still remained “you can do anything as long as it isn’t against the law.”

An interesting aspect I found during my research was that in relation to bullying by classmates or society in general, people didn’t care and “that is only seen in American movies,” I was told. Preceding morals and ethics still of course live on until change occurs and becomes accepted by the new generation. This is slowly occurring according to Bonnie, which makes the future a brighter prospect to look forward to. China has the reputation that it hasn’t entered the ‘real world’ this of course meaning the western world. This statement sometimes I agree with, yet at times I disagree with because at times the western world comes across as a world full of hate and discrimination, although this is not to say discrimination doesn’t occur in China at all. The Chinese students and general population I met all came across as peaceful and happy, in fact, the only gawking was at us and it was in fascination.

Gay Pride
Gay Pride- Photo Credit- Flickr- Guillaume Paumier

Bonnie is the only young woman whose one parent knows of her sexual preference, her parents are divorced and her mother is a single mother. It is rare that Bonnie sees her father and as he is a judge and is regularly busy, with his courtroom persona often entering his family life. Bonnie’s mother has had much experience with the gay community  having a friend who has experienced a transgender procedure. This is no to say she wouldn’t prefer her daughter to be ‘normal’ in Chinese terms and western terms, marry a man, produce biological children, etc.,  From the outset of her ‘coming out’ Bonnie’s mother has encouraged her experimentation in relation to her personal appearance. She was the first one to experiment with her hair in middle school, something that many Chinese parents forbid their daughters to engage in.

“Why do you think people are against homosexual relationships?” I asked. Bonnie is quick to deliver a response ” We don’t understand straight people, just like straight people don’t understand gay people.” When do you ever hear of a gay person discriminating a straight person? Exactly, never! Just like most things, you can’t abhor something you can’t understand. An interesting example Bonnie delivers is that, “Some people like dogs and they even want to marry their dog. These things can be accepted by some, but why can’t two people of the same gender that are human beings, be accepted?”. I cannot disagree.

CHINA-GAY-PARADE- Photo Credit- Film Festival Summit

Suicide has recently been a controversial topic for many American teenagers, but in relation to these two young women “to be gay isn’t a serious enough reason to commit suicide.” China is a country with many alternative ethic and religious groups and although there is much persecution, especially in Tibet, the new generation seems to be a paragon for change.  According to many straight and gay teenagers or young adults “Most lesbians and gay men are seen to be very trendy.”

Media coverage of the homosexual community is often spun in a negative way mostly referring their life to a world of HIV/AIDS and promiscuous group sex rather than accurate representation. The older generation in China are unwilling to move forward into modern society. There is a sense of fear and resistance to understand homosexuals because in their eyes they are different. As many influential public figures ‘come out’ it is beginning to make it easier for people both young and old to follow suit because of the acceptance these celebrities are receiving. Kevin Tsai is a writer and television host from Taiwan and is openly gay having maintained a relationship with his partner since 2002. Denise Ho is a singer from Hong Kong and in 2012 she admitted on stage she was a lesbian, she received full support from her fans without hindering her career.

So far there are still no civil rights laws to address harassment or discrimination towards homosexuals in China, but it begs the question, do they need it? There are also no rights for homosexual couples to adopt children. Anna and Bonnie remain hopeful for the future, both wanting to get married to a woman in a country where it is legal whether it maybe China or abroad. Raising children is another aspect of life these two women hope to enjoy, Bonnie reveals “Some people think you need a man and a woman to raise a child, this is not true. I feel I carry both traits of a father and a mother and there are two of them, which makes it even stronger.” Due to Anna’s situation she is prepared to marry a man “My mother will approve my husband. My fear is that she will have the key to our house and never leave me alone,” she says.

Gay and Lesbian couples kissing in public
Gay and Lesbian couples kissing in public- Photo Credit- live.wsj.com

Richard is an English teacher from Southern England currently teaching in China. He is funny, outgoing, gay, and his students love him. ” I have never had any negative experiences or anything but being gay just doesn’t seem to be so open. Some people know and some people don’t but that is mainly because of how different it is in Europe. In Europe when I make friends they don’t need ask because they can guess. In China they can’t guess. I am not sure if it is because of the culture difference. I don’t want to have a big ‘coming out’ scene every time I make a new friend so usually unless people ask I don’t say anything” he told me. The reaction in China is usually surprise but not in a bad way.  “They just seem curious more than anything. They kind of act the same way to gays as they do to foreigners in general, curiosity but accepting.”

Richard has met quite a lot of gay Chinese males but they are all very shy about being gay.  “A lot of their friends don’t even know. That can make dating and things problematic here because a lot of guys are ‘in the closet’. It is strange because I have never really witnessed or heard of any homophobic behaviour in China so I am not really sure of the reason why it is. It almost seems that the reason it is kept quite is because of pressure from parents” he reveals. Knowing gay guys who are ‘out’ Richard believes they don’t seem to have a problem being accepted as they have gay and straight friends. Overall Richard believes, “China to be accepting toward gays.”

 

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Holly Lenny