Gays in China: Just Another Minority

Steven Zhang, a participant in Mr. Gay China, reacts after police shut down the pageant, in January 2010. Jason Lee / Reuters-Landov

While there are signs that China is slouching toward acceptance of homosexuality, no one will mistake any of the country's metropolises for San Francisco anytime soon. Advances over the past two years, including China's first gay-pride event in Shanghai in 2009 and the phenomenon of gay couples posing for wedding pictures in front of Beijing's historical sites, are marred by the extensive discrimination urban homosexuals still face in the workplace and at home, strong family pressure to marry, and the lack of enforced laws to protect their rights. Over the weekend, the organizers of the second annual ShanghaiPRIDE festival canceled a planned Halloween pub crawl because two of the bars "received an order by the local district police to shut for the evening," according to a notice on their Web site. Yet China's discrimination lacks the moralistic bite that Christianity adds to antigay movements in the United States. The way authoritarian China cracks down on homosexuality, and the margins in which people can pursue their sexual preferences, tell an important lesson about the nature of freedom in today's China.

The government's attitude toward gay groups resembles the way it treats ethnic minorities. It distrusts any group, whether Tibetans fighting for freedom of worship or gay activists agitating for marriage rights, whose goals ostensibly don't line up with those of the majority. "In this kind of system, the government fears all sorts of minorities," says Wei Xiaogang, host of the LGBT Webcast Queer Comrades. "It doesn't know how much power it should give them." Seen in this light, actions like shutting down the Mr. Gay China pageant last January represent a broader unease toward diversity in the country. "If you want a person to represent China, whether or not they're gay, you have to have permission from the government," said Bin Xu, director of Common Language, a community-based support and rights group for lesbians, bisexual women and transgendered people (LBT) in China. That's a permission that extends beyond tacit approval. "It's just too sensitive," she says.

As with minorities, official opposition to gay groups occurs only when the government feels threatened by unity or organizing. When gays are seen as individuals, it's much less of a problem. "China's feel is a bit like ancient Rome," says Li Yinhe, a professor at China's Academy of Social Sciences who is known as the country's premier sexologist. "If you do something gay it doesn't mean you're gay." In other words, men having sex with men falls under the category—culturally and politically—of something allowed, perhaps even more so than in the U.S., provided that it doesn't lead to a group agitating for rights, and providing that it's unspoken, and done behind closed doors.

There are more than a hundred—and perhaps several hundred—flourishing gay and lesbian bars throughout China. As opposed to America, which had 1,297 reported hate crimes in 2008, the latest year for which the FBI has national figures, "there are few violent acts against gays in China," said Bin. Street harassment is rare. "When I was in Belgium holding hands with my boyfriend people shouted 'fag,' " said Stijn Deklerck, who produces Queer Comrades. "That doesn't happen in Beijing." Adds Wei: "I have a friend who was in the Army in Tibet, and he had so much sex." That happens, of course, until marriage intrudes.

In general, the strongest opponents to a son or daughter coming out in China are their parents. "We asked a lot of people, including older people, around 60, if gays should be allowed to marry, and they said no problem," said Wei. "Then we asked, what if their son did it. Then they'd say definitely not! That's China's attitude." Parents, who often make great sacrifices so their only child can succeed, see a successful heterosexual marriage and grandchildren as the signs of filial piety that they deserve. Many Chinese gay experts and advocates see this as the largest problem that the nation's gays face. "In the past 10 years, more and more gays are willing to accept that they're gay," said Bin. "But they still have the pressure; so a gay man will marry a lesbian woman just to give face to their parents." Li says that "this marriage pressure is much bigger than in America."

This marriage tension mirrors the government's attitude toward homosexuality: do your own thing privately, as long as your behavior in general still contributes to the strength and stability of the motherland. As China grows increasingly multifaceted, there's more room for individualistic behavior on the margins. "I have a lot of friends in Shanghai and Beijing, and they do pretty well; they're in the younger generation and they've struck out on their own," said Rich Campbell, founder and CEO of Atlantis Cruises, a company specializing in gay vacation tours, and which launched what it claims is the first gay cruise to set sail from China.

And China's government recognizes at some level that a little partying doesn't hurt. During the Olympics, Beijing's most popular gay club, Destination, was allowed to stay open, though reportedly was ordered to close its dance floor. "Homosexuality is a human-rights issue that China is willing to compromise on," says a gay Chinese media executive who, unsurprisingly, declined to be quoted by name.