Homosexuality in China

With the US Supreme Court recently holding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, the writing is pretty much on the wall that gay marriage will be legal in all or most of the United States within five to ten years. What about China? How does China view gays and gay marriage?

For answers to these questions, I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Richard Burger, the force behind the Peking Duck blog, which blog has produced around 5,000 posts since 2002! Richard authored the critically acclaimed book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, examining China’s sexual history and present. Richard’s post touches on the following:

  • homosexuality in china
  • Whether gay marriage is legal in china
  • LGBT history in china
  • Chinese culture and homophobia

Here is Richard’s post on homosexuality in China:

It was only in 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalized in China and a little more than a decade ago since it was removed from the list of mental illnesses. The dark years of complete stigmatization of homosexuality under Mao, the practice of which was punishable by prison time, had finally lifted, and cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai now boast robust LGBT communities, complete with support groups, bars and an array of gay meeting places. In 2009, a male couple held a symbolic wedding in public not far from Tiananmen Square, and China Daily splashed the photo of the two men in a passionate embrace across its pages. Other symbolic gay and lesbian weddings have been held across the country and have been covered positively by the Chinese media. Spectators have gathered to watch the “weddings,” applauding and wishing the couples well. It makes one wonder, is China ready for gay marriage? Could it possibly approve of gay marriage across the country before the US does?

The short answer is no. For all the new freedoms and tolerance, homosexuality remains stigmatized throughout most of the country, partly because, as Fei Wang points out, it clashes with the long-held belief in China that children must marry and continue the family line by bearing offspring. Few Chinese gays come out to their families, who cannot imagine their children not marrying. Many Chinese may now feel comfortable with gay marriage — but only as long as it’s not their own family member getting married. Outspoken sexologist Li Yinhe says an estimated 80 percent of gay men and women will engage in heterosexual marriage, a national tragedy that speaks to just how far China has to go before its gay population feels independent of a stigma that goes back several generations. It means that 80 percent of China’s approximately 40 million gays will have to live a lie. This is just as tragic for the heterosexual spouse as for their gay partner. Women known as “homowives” (tongqi) wonder why they can’t arouse their husbands, making them feel there is something wrong with them. (There are now support groups for “homowives,” encouraging them to maintain their dignity, and often to get a divorce.) Lesbians, too, must feign sexual pleasure, always denying who they really are.

Thousands of Chinese gays have come up with a creative solution to meet their parents’ demands that they marry, while holding on to their gay lifestyle: it is becoming increasingly popular for gay men to marry lesbian women. This allows both spouses to satisfy their families’ annoying questions as to when they’re getting married. Then, they live separate lives, melting into the anonymity of the city with their parents and siblings never knowing the truth. There is actually a yoga studio in Shanghai that holds a party every month where gay men and women can “shop” for a spouse. It’s an imperfect solution and it’s sad they have to go to such lengths, but it’s far better than marrying and having to pretend you care about a spouse who doesn’t interest you.

China’s attitudes toward gays is generally one of live and let live. As a country that is largely atheist, there is no religious notion of homosexuality being a sin or immoral. There is no “gay bashing” and nothing like the Westboro Baptist Church crashing funerals and declaring “God hates fags.” Most gays in China’s cosmopolitan cities live anonymous lives; they blend into society and don’t broadcast their sexuality. Gay men rarely hold hands in public, but if they did most people probably wouldn’t notice. (Until relatively recently it was not uncommon to see straight male friends walking down the street holding hands.) Heterosexual girls in China hold hands all the time, so lesbians don’t have anything to fear if they do the same. Straight men often walk with their arm around their male friends’ shoulder, so gays do the same with no one lifting an eye. Because most gays in China keep their sexuality to themselves, and perhaps to their circle of close friends, there’s little prejudice against them in the workplace where they are for the most part invisible. Most younger, well-educated Chinese understand that gay people are born that way and tthat they have no choice in the matter. If an employer or colleagues found their coworker was gay, the attitude would most likely be one indifference, especially in the larger cities.

China is creeping toward greater tolerance, but it will take several generations before gay marriage is approved by the state (if  ever). Li Yinhe has been an outspoken advocate for the cause for years, and has urged her colleagues at the China Academy of Social Sciences to press for such legislation. The result, she wrote a few years ago, was that higher-ups in the government told her to “shut up”. But look at how far China has come in just 15 years in accepting gays as fellow human beings. As younger generations replace the old, and as Confucian notions of family and filial piety grow more distant, China may at some point accept gay marriage, just not soon.

Looking back at China’s history, one sees a great irony in Chinese perceptions of same-sex love. As Steven Jiang points out, homosexuality was once not only tolerated in China but celebrated. In the Han dynasty scribes kept a record of the emperor’s male lovers and even as late as the Qing dynasty the literati (and more than one Qing emperor) carried on affairs with young men, especially at the time when Beijing Opera came to Beijing and a flood of young actors, all male, came to perform. For the literati who enjoyed having sex with men these were the golden years, and male brothels in Beijing engaged in serious competition with their female counterparts. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that nearly all of the men seeking the favors of young men were married and had children. Homosexuality was not an identity: it was something done for amusement, and as long as the patrons met their familial obligations it was seen as acceptable. China’s shift from one of the most open societies for gays (or at least for gay men) to one of the most restrictive in so little time is an astonishing story. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. China may not be headed back to the days of the Han dynasty, but it is well on the path to offering its millions of gays the possibility of greater tolerance and freedom of expression.

July 22, 2022 Update.

Bloomberg News just came out with an article stating the obvious about LGBT rights in China: they’ve declined, along with virtually all other human and civil rights in China.

The Bloomberg article focused on two Tsinghua University students “who were issued warnings for distributing LGBTQ rainbow flags, highlighting how the nation’s increasing intolerance for sexual diversity is extending further into campuses.”

Being gay, bisexual or trans is seen by some in China as a concept imported from the West — a misconception that draws on the fact that many foreign embassies in Beijing have highlighted gay rights. That’s left few local advocacy groups daring to attend foreign-sponsored events on such themes, at least officially.

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