Gay pride in China? This week's coming-out party in Shanghai for the country's lesbian and gay community was touted as a first. Even China Daily, the government's English-language mouthpiece, effused that Shanghai's weeklong festival sent a strong signal about "greater acceptance and tolerance" and "is an event of profound significance for the country and the world."
Shanghai's gay celebration underscored the reality that today's China offers space for sexual freedoms that it does not offer for political ones—after all, dissidents have long complained that accessing soft-porn Web sites is much easier than the homepage of Human Rights in China (or, recently, even YouTube). But by midweek red tape had entangled some events of the much-ballyhooed gay-pride festival—proving once again that the Chinese regime, and even society at large, has not yet undergone a sea change in its attitudes toward sexual minorities. After all, this is a government that tries to dictate decisions many Westerners consider highly personal, such as how many children a married couple can have or which religious figures cannot be worshipped.
From the very start, the government didn't have to rain on Shanghai's gay parade because there was no parade. Such a public gathering would have been too high profile in a year packed with sensitive politics, such as the recent 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown. Instead, the festival took place in privately run venues and consisted of low-key activities such as film screenings, social gatherings, charity events and a debate between two academics (where one participant noted that the audience was 70 percent Chinese, including some older gay men). What's more, the celebration was organized by two foreigners, Hannah Miller and Tiffany Lemay, who initially publicized it only in English. (Miller stressed that plenty of Chinese volunteers were involved and the "great turnout" of the first few days included many grass-roots Chinese.)
Still, by Wednesday evening, one film screening had to be cancelled, a play was called off (there's a rumor it may be performed later) and other events were left scrambling for new venues at short notice—because commercial-bureau authorities inspecting the sites said they were unlicensed to host such activities. Shanghai's weeklong festival at least fared slightly better than the 2005 gay and lesbian culture festival in Beijing four years ago, which was shut down by police before it could even start. The aborted Beijing festival was organized by filmmaker Cui Zi'en (one of the first Chinese homosexuals to come out of the close), who believes that, overall, there has not been a huge amount of progress in terms of official attitudes toward Chinese homosexuals in the past few years—especially since gay sex was decriminalized in 1997.
But Cui, whose documentary film Queer China was shown during Shanghai's celebration, says attitudes of Chinese youth are changing rapidly. At the very least, Chinese lesbians and gay men now organize more and more community events, including a gay cultural center in Beijing that holds weekly activities and an upcoming film festival. And Cui believes Shanghai's bash is extremely meaningful for the gay community itself. "No one has done something like this so openly in China before."
Greater tolerance may come more naturally in China than some Westerners imagine. As counterintuitive as it may sound, traditional Chinese perceptions of homosexuality have not been as negative as in the U.S. There is no "religious right," and China has no strong religious beliefs that denounce homosexuals, says Li Yinhe of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of the country's top experts on family and gender studies. She also notes that, in imperial times, some Chinese emperors had sex with young male courtiers without being stigmatized.
Still, the public flaunting of gayness remains largely taboo. Drag queens may perform in Chinese nightclubs but never appear on state-run TV. Brokeback Mountain was banned in China, and mainland media reports about director Ang Lee's Oscar generally neglected to mention that the film dealt with homosexuality at all. Even though the Shanghai festival intended to screen its gay-themed films in nongovernment establishments, city authorities apparently felt that still went too far. In China, the closet is getting much bigger, and the closet door is opening wider. But the ultimate test of the regime's open-mindedness will come only when Chinese gays come out and parade in public.