Chinese Gays: The Dark Before The Dawn

Today’s edition of China Daily — a national English-language newspaper with a 200,000 circulation published in Beijing, and aimed primarily at the foreign business community — carries a long article on China’s gay and lesbian population, “The Dark Before the Dawn,” which  portrays some of their tiny first steps toward openness. The article, reprinted from the Beijing Review, while it contains interesting interviews, omits any reports on recent government crackdowns on gay people — there is, remember, no free press in China — and so must be taken with a grain of salt. Here are excerpts, with my notes on some of those omissions:


“Little over four years ago, homosexuality was still officially classified as a mental disorder in China. On December 16, 2005, China’s gays and lesbians celebrated their first national festival. It’s a huge leap forward in a country long associated with closed attitudes toward alternative lifestyles.


“Despite the stigma and public admonishments, China’s gay community is taking its first tentative steps out of a closet that was, until recently, firmly bolted.  In 1997, the word ‘hooligan’ was deleted from China’s criminal code in reference to gays arrested for soliciting in public places. The move is considered by many as the de facto decriminalization of homosexual acts and was followed in April 2001 by the deletion of homosexuality from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders.


“Now, marking gay-awareness month June 12 by flying kites in Beijing, Shenyang and Fuzhou, and turning out in numbers for the country;s first national gay and lesbian festival December 16 in Beijing, organized by Cui Zi’ en, a gay associate professor at the Beijing Film Academy, are acts that illustrate changing attitudes toward the pink revolution.”


Note: This China Daily/Beijing Review article omits to mention that the festival referred to above was raided and stopped by police, The Times of London reported on December 17, the day after it was to have taken place. According to the Times’ China correspondent, “Organisers had planned to hold their festival of films, plays, exhibitions and seminars on homosexuality at one of the trendiest artistic communities in China. The venue was to be the studios and warehouses at the 798 complex of converted factory buildings in northeastern Beijing. Most of the capital’s hippest and most happening events take place among the grey concrete blocks, fashionable French bistro-style bars and industrial pipes of 798. Police notified studio owners that the event would not be allowed to proceed. Li Yinhe, a distinguished sociologist from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, had been invited to address the opening, but had to stay away. The group of about 30 participants bold enough to reveal their sexuality in China’s conservative society were undeterred by the cancellation. They decided to move their ground-breaking event to On/Off, a Beijing gay bar. Police swarmed around the bar even before the group arrived. ‘This bar is temporarily closed for review,’ police told would-be festival participants,” the Times of London concluded.  Human Rights Watch issued a press release denouncing the ban on the festival. — D.I.


The China Daily/Beijing Review article notes that, “The word tongzhi, literally meaning comrade (people with the same ideals),is now widely accepted by gays and lesbians as a self-reference in this country. Googling the Chinese character for tongzhi produces some astonishing results….” [Note: the term tongzhi for gay was adopted by a national conference of 200 Chinese gays held in Hong Kong in 1996, when Hong Kong was still under British control; the conference issued China's first gay manifesto. There is now an Institute for Tongzhi Studies at the City University of New York -- D.I.]


“Sociologist and gay novelist Tong Ge’s impassioned call for ‘comrades to melt the frozen land with our body heat’ galvanized Chinese professionals into lobbying the government for the approval of same-sex marriage, regardless of the very real obstacles lying ahead.


“Zhang Beichuan — China’s leading scholar in the field of homosexual study and winner of the 2000 Barry & Martin Prize awarded to individuals making outstanding contributions to the AIDS awareness campaign — estimates there are 40 million homosexuals on the Chinese mainland, far more than the official figure of between 5 and 10 million released by the Ministry of Health in December 2004. This huge number, equal to the population of Spain, can no longer be ignored by society.


“Conan Liu, 24, a tax consultant with one of the Big Four accounting firms, told Beijing Review that he has never tried to conceal his sexual orientation since finding out he is gay. Unlike the older generation, Conan’s age group is more willing to talk about their lives and love experiences. Fashionably dressed and charming, Conan is proud of who he is. ‘My friends usually say that I need to be protected,’ he smiled, saying that he seldom has difficulties either at work or in his life. ‘Most people around me understand and accept my homosexual orientation,’ Conan said. As for those who don’t like men behaving in a feminine manner, he’s defiant. ‘I like the way I am and I will stay away from those who dislike me. It’s no big deal.’ In spite of his carefree attitude, Conan has not been able to admit his sexual orientation to his parents. It’s a common situation throughout the Chinese gay community.


“In interviews conducted with gay people, Beijing Review found that family members were always the last to know and the most difficult to tell. A Confucius saying may best explain the Chinese difficulty in accepting homosexuality: There are three things that are unfilial–disobeying one’s parents, not supporting one’s parents and, the most important, not continuing the family line.  Hao Ting, a 17-year-old sophomore at Peking University, said that most of his friends know he is gay. But he still felt uneasy telling his parents. Chinese homosexuals do not want to disappoint their families by not being able to produce heirs.


“As Zhang Beichuan noted, homosexuals in China mostly feel guilty and sorry for their family. Homosexuality can be tolerated as long as they still give birth to the next generation, as the Chinese have a strong sense of family ties, said Zhang Beichuan. ‘But it is too painful to marry a person that you don’t really love.’”


The article adds, “Currently, there are more than 10 bars catering to gays and lesbians across urban Beijing [That's not very many when you consider that Beijing's population is now 15.25 million! -- D.I.]Moreover, hundreds of websites are devoted to the gay scene in China, with almost every city having a dedicated site.” But the article fails to note that — as a comprehensive Human Rights Watch Report on “Restrictions on AIDS Activists in China” put it in June 2005 — “Chinese authorities have shut down websites offering information to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” To read the entire China Daily/Beijing Review article, click here.


For an extensive article by two Chinese scholars on the rapid spread of HIV-AIDS  in  China, in the Nov.-Dec. 2005 scholarly journal Cell Research, click here. A history of gay life in China over 2,000 years (in Chinese), by Hong Kong’s pioneering gay activist Samshasha, can be ordered by clicking here.



Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared Dec. 26, 2005.


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