It was Valentine’s Day in Tiananmen Square, nearly twenty years after the student uprising that led to the death of an estimated 2,500 Chinese dissidents. On this day, 30 gays and lesbians are gathered nearby to lead a protest of their own. They’re dressed in bridal gowns and tuxedos and taking photos of each other. The police stand by, but don’t interfere. One of the men, Zhang Yi, tells a reporter, “I think that coming here and taking these wedding photos is for fun and a chance for everyone to come into contact with and understand us. But everything needs time.”
Welcome to gay life in China, the world’s most populous and rapidly changing nation. Where officially gays and lesbians remain on the sidelines, but in practice, are enjoying a new sense of freedom that’s borne on whispers, not shouts.
Like much of Chinese civic life, the real debate over the Valentine’s protests (if they can be called that—the political action consisted of handing out informative cards to curious passerby) occurred on Chinese discussion boards, where the news of the demonstration provoked a wide range of reactions. One man writes that the women ought to do their part and “Make some contributions to the tens of millions of single males [in China].” Another writes, “Love is love, and there is no specific reason. Who can say that there is no real love between them? How many males and females end up in divorce?”
China is a nation in the midst of a great transformation, embracing modernity, but doing it in a way that’s uniquely Chinese. This holds true for gays and lesbians as much as anyone. There are no formal political gay organizations in mainland China (there are a few in Hong Kong), but websites have taken on much of the organizing power and advisory status of Western gay rights organizations. Movies like Milk and Brokeback Mountain are banned by the state, yet Hong Kong’s Phoenix Satellite Television, which mainland Chinese have access to, ran a 12-part series called Tongxing Xianglian or “Connecting Homosexuals,” which featured openly gay hosts from different regions of China discussing gay topics on a panel. The show’s producer, Gang Gang, told the BBC:
“We hope that after this show airs, homosexuality will no longer be an issue, that society will be more enlightened about it, more understanding and more tolerant.”
A lofty and unattainable goal, but in recent years, gay Chinese have seen tangible changes in the way the state views them. China has its own version of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell that applies to gay rights in general known as “The Three Nos”: No approval, no disapproval and no promotion. But in practice, the country has eased restrictions on gays and lesbians that had been in place since the Cultural revolution.
In 1997, sodomy was decriminalized, and in 2001, The Chinese Classification and Diagnostic Criteria of Mental Disorders removed homosexuality as a mental illness. The government has sponsored HIV-prevention programs and clinics targeted at gay men, a response to the rapid spread of the disease, with infection rates jumping 5 percent in the last three years. The Chinese National Assembly has even taken up the question of gay marriage, with bills proposed in 2000, 2004 (which was accompanied with a petition signed by 10,000 people) and 2006, though each time the bill was dismissed.
In fact, the only people who still use the term “comrade” (‘Tongzhi’) in China are gays and lesbians, who use it as a slang way to identify themselves. The state-run English language newspaper, China Daily, has even taken to running, “Is he gay?” tabloid stories about teen pop star Wang Lee-Hom.
Beyond the Chinese government’s deliberate blind eye, attitudes are changing. Didier Zheng, one of the hosts of Tongxing Xianglian says, “After 2001, everything changed. Society is changing. We are paying more attention to gay man’s socialization and integration [into society].” A 2008 study by Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe found that 91 percent of respondents said they supported equal employment rights for gays and lesbians, while over 80 percent of respondents agreed that heterosexuals and homosexuals were “equal individuals.” Still, 40 percent found homosexuality “completely wrong.”
Watch Ted Koppel report on gay life in China:
The opposition to homosexuality stems from a different place than it does in the West. None of China’s major religions consider homosexuality a sin and reports of gay bashing are rare. Gang says, “Of course, discrimination remains … The kind of pressure on gay people in China is different to the pressure in Western countries. In the West, it is usually pressure brought by religion. In China, it is usually family and neighbors and peers.”
But attitudes are changing. When 18-year-old Zheng Yuantao of Guangzhou told his mother, Wu Youjian, he was gay, she became a one woman PFLAG, setting up a blog to give advice to other children thinking about coming out to their parents. The site became a huge watering hole for the community, garnering over 100,000 hits. Readers call her “Auntie Wu”.
Or take the story of Sun Dehua, a farmer from the northeastern city of Dalian, who planned on blowing up his son’s gay bar. He told The Guardian:
I believed he had been led astray by bad people or we would have a daughter-in-law and the happiness we deserved. I felt my whole life depended on him and I didn’t want to live any more. I was so angry I wanted to kill him and myself.
But when his son and his boyfriend fled, Dehua had a change of heart. He bought a house for the couple and hopes that they can someday be married, saying, “These people want marriage and it’s their right. We must learn to accept them.” Today, Dehua runs a hotline for parents of gay children. He says, ““I am really glad seeing them together, because Mu is so happy when he’s with him (his son’s boyfriend). Now it feels like I have two sons.”