How to Be Gay in Beijing

Kyna Rubin. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume X, Issue 3. May/June 2003.

Gay men and lesbians comprise an estimated three to four percent of China’s 1.2 billion people, which yields a range of 36 million to 48 million people. If the real number lies at the midpoint of that staggering estimate, the total number of homosexuals in China is greater than the total population of Spain.

Historically, some same-sex relationships were accepted in China, at least among the upper classes. Such relationships typically took place between a mature man and a youth, like those we associate with ancient Greece. A “half-eaten peach”—lovingly offered in an orchard by the young Mizi Xia to his patron, Duke Ling of Wei, in 500 BCE—became a metaphor for homosexuality in ancient China. So, too, did the “cut sleeve” in the title of a book by Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve, about homosexuality in imperial China. The reference is to Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Napping one afternoon with his favorite boy resting on his arm, the Emperor wished to get up without disturbing his still sleeping lover, so he cut off his own imperial sleeve.

Homosexual behavior—as distinct from a “gay” identity, which is a Western import that didn’t hit China until the late 20th century—was an ordinary part of Chinese life. Same-sex love is depicted in novels like the 18th-century Dream of the Red Chamber. It was common within Beijing Opera circles, as portrayed in the 1993 movie Farewell, My Concubine. Such relationships were usually forged between ruler and ruled or between rich and poor, and were fueled by that power dynamic. Rarely was same-sex activity criticized in the dynastic records and poetry that recorded its presence. Observers condemning the undue influence of Mizi Xia over Duke Ling, for instance, did not critique the same-gender tie per se, only the potential threat it posed to the court’s legal and social order.

What about homosexuality in today’s China, five-plus decades after the Communist Revolution and almost three decades since the death of Mao Zedong? To find out, I recently visited the country I’ve been studying since 1979. I conducted in-depth, Chinese-language interviews with gay men and lesbians in Beijing, Shanghai, and the United States, hung out in gay bars in China’s big cities, read Chinese underground gay publications and books by sociologists from mainland China and Hong Kong, and combed websites targeting China’s gay community.

The Bright Side and the Dark

What I found was a set of cultural factors that make it hard for someone to be openly gay in China yet protect a gay person from the worst effects of homophobia. On the positive side, Chinese culture is imbued with certain values and practices that indirectly benefit today’s gay people. Chief among them is an over-arching norm of restraint in personal relations. For example, a woman sharing a flat with her girlfriend told me that, although her neighbors may disapprove of their relationship, it’s unlikely that they would openly express their objections. “Chinese behavior is restrained,” explains one of the volunteers who runs Beijing’s gay hotline. “It’s how we’re raised.” A gay American man living in Beijing says that this reserve is one reason he lives here: “In China you wouldn’t see anyone calling you ‘faggot’ from a car window. Even if they don’t like you, they still treat you very civilly.”

This man also offered another related factor to explain the absence of open hostility: “They don’t have this macho image programmed into them.” Men who might be scorned as effeminate in the U.S. are not considered so in China. Also, same-sex physical affection has been a natural part of daily life for centuries. Now, however, a growing awareness of homosexuality in the cities is starting to make some young people feel awkward about publicly draping their arms around friends. On the other hand, the practice is still common among high school and college-age youths, and remains ubiquitous in rural China. “I like that in the countryside you see men holding hands,” says the American. “The Chinese are so much more natural about that than in the U.S.” He also enjoys this country’s absence of religious censure against homosexuality.

Chen Gang, a gay hotline volunteer, agrees. Chinese homophobia can be traced, he contends, to a misconception that homosexuality is an illness, but no moral judgment is intended. “In China we don’t have the religious baggage of the West,” he observes. The anti-gay rhetoric of Falun Gong followers notwithstanding, this distinction explains why Chen is convinced that once the public is educated, “we might go even farther than the West has in changing social attitudes toward gays.” Gay bashing is almost unknown in China, he adds.

One encouraging development was the March 2000 announcement by the Chinese Psychiatric Association that it would delete homosexuality from its list of mental disorders (which its U.S. counterpart, the A.P.A., did in 1973). The statement prompted a few leading newspapers to carry positive coverage of gay men and lesbians. In China, broadcast and print outlets compete madly for audiences and are keen to attract young viewers who are interested in provocative topics. Spurred by the bottom line, then, the media have been covering a topic that has been taboo for most journalists for years.

The challenge for gay people has already been hinted at by one informant: Homosexuality is considered abnormal, even an illness, by most people in China, and thus it is a source of shame. Like most traditional peoples, Chinese are obsessed with “saving face.” Fear of ostracism by parents and of a potentially deleterious effect on family social standing keeps most gays in the closet. Parents of homosexuals in America can join PFLAG gay pride parades, but such a response would be unheard of in China, where support services for gay people—much less for their parents—are almost nonexistent. Suicide by gay youths who have been shunned by their parents is not uncommon, nor are doctors’ recommendations for “cures” like electric shock therapy. Heart-breaking accounts of such stories appear in China’s underground gay magazines. China’s deeply ingrained antipathy toward open discussion of sex at school or home has helped to create the ignorance that much of society has about sexual issues, including homosexuality.

“Parents in China still just focus on how well you do in school,” says ErYan, creator of a U.S.-based Website that educates Chinese people about homosexuality and AIDS. “Chinese parents show no concern for their children’s sexual or emotional well-being.” Sex education is still taught in only limited doses in some Chinese schools, generally those in the larger cities.

Also, the terror of unknown consequences in the workplace plays a key role in silencing gay people. Although China has no laws against homosexuality, gays also receive no legal protections. Possible responses by an employer range from “no problem” to summarily firing a gay worker—an indeterminacy that chains most Chinese gays to a double life. The Chinese are acutely attuned to the power that interpersonal politics holds over their lives. Most of the people I interviewed are too young to remember the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960’s, but anxiety about private life becoming public lingers among emotionally vulnerable members of China’s younger generation. The possibility that their social enemies—past, present, future, real or imagined—could use their sexual status against them, whether at home or at work, is a Sword of Damocles hanging over gays in China.

Chen Gang, one of about forty volunteers who staff Beijing’s gay hotline, gets an earful from adolescents to older men from all over China. Of the estimated 10,000 calls that volunteers have screened since the hotline’s inception in 1997, most are from people suffering emotional stress because they know they’re gay but don’t know if they’re normal. Many say they’re depressed because they have no one to confide in, they’re under pressure to marry, and they have no means of meeting other gays.

Another reason that many gay people choose to live double lives is that political liberty is still quite limited in China. The Communist Party feels threatened by groups outside the mainstream that privately and successfully organize themselves—witness the daily arrests of Falun Gong followers whose large-scale, silent demonstration in front of Chinese leaders’ compound in Beijing set off a vicious crackdown in April 1999. There are no gay pride parades or even openly gay associations in China. Over time, gays here might be able to push for limited reforms; the AIDS epidemic, if nothing else, will motivate them to stand up for certain rights, especially regarding health care. For now, though, with few exceptions, Chinese gays are only just emerging from a thick cocoon of secrecy.

The Expatriate Effect

Undoubtedly the Internet accounts for part of the heightened gay consciousness that colors the lifestyle decisions of people like those I interviewed. But a major factor contributing to the rise of gay identity is the core of Western gay expatriates who live in China. Western gays helped start up Beijing’s gay hotline, which continues to receive financial support from sympathetic Westerners. Unofficial publications such as Beijing Sisters’ Sky magazine, edited by Shitou and distributed to 1,000 to 2,000 lesbians, receives some support from overseas. Friend newsletter, edited by Zhang Beichuan, a doctor and AIDS educator at Qingdao University’s Medical School Hospital, receives some funding from the Ford Foundation for its 8,000-copy run. Western gays have been known to carry in videos of gay-oriented films that would be banned at the Beijing Film Academy.

A handful of Europeans also bolstered the 1995 opening of Beijing’s first gay bar, Half and Half. The presence of high-powered foreigners at this bar and others, such as Drag-on (known as “Dragon” or Long in Chinese), lends some protection to these establishments, quite apart from alleged payoffs to police. English words permeate the lingo used by China’s gay crowd (as it does in other countries). One young man I interviewed used the term “fag hag” to describe a straight woman friend. The same man calls himself Stanton, a moniker given him by a former American lover who was nostalgic for his Midwestern hometown of that name.

The same Western currents that are freeing more and more urban gays to be themselves are also being blamed for AIDS—a monstrous problem in China that its leaders have only recently acknowledged. For years the Chinese government had labeled it a foreign disease, ignoring the greatest sources of the scourge in China: drug use and unclean blood collection by unscrupulous blood brokers in poor rural areas. State AIDS education and prevention efforts are beginning, but the government projects that the HIV-positive population will rise from its current 850,000 (a conservative estimate) to ten million by 2010.

Growing AIDS awareness among officials and the public is a double-edged sword for China’s gay men. The government’s recognition of the economic and social implications of the spread of HIV has pushed it to implement AIDS education programs. But the new awareness of HIV—promoted by the state’s lifting of a ban on AIDS media reporting in 2001—has spawned draconian new laws in several cities that could mean tougher times for homosexuals. For instance, the city of Chengdu in southwestern China requires people working in restaurants, public baths, and beauty salons to get tested for HIV.

Nevertheless, this trend is offset by the broadly favorable drift in China toward greater tolerance and understanding of sexual minorities. Buoyed by the overall civility of Chinese culture, the rise of a market economy, and the influence of Westerners, gay people in the cities, and young people everywhere, have begun to dream big. They’ve internalized the desire to be who they are rather than what others want them to be. Whether they choose, for now, to don the traditional cloak of marriage to hide their secret lives, or to flout convention by living with same-sex lovers, they already have more lifestyle options than did Chinese gays just a decade ago. Most Chinese gays are not there yet, but one of my informants, Wei Wei, wears an attitude that just might signal the future of gay life in China: “I’m not doing anything wrong,” he told me. “I’m very comfortable being gay.”