I was just interrupted by an unusual phone call. I am going to take a gamble and write about it now, although I’ve never blogged about such personal subjects before. If only a couple of people see it, it will be worthwhile. I must by necessity live a secret life here in Beijing, where being gay, while no longer a crime per se, is certainly something one doesn’t announce to one’s colleagues. So I keep all aspects of the topic out of this diary and out of my worklife. I have entrusted one colleague of mine, a very mature and wonderful young lady, with the URL for this site. Amy, if you are reading this tonight, I am counting on you to honor my trust in you.
So the phone rang a short while ago. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t believe that I can ever be happy here. I can never tell my family about the man that I love, I always have to live a secret life.” So said my friend David, one of my first friends here, a 21-year-old student at a local university, his voice choking with emotion. David told me about a teacher he was in love with, an American whose father had just suffered a heart attack. He had to return at once to America and David, who has been looking for love for so many months, was utterly devastated. I hardly knew what to say as I heard his sobs, but I felt that I was hearing a cry of agony from all the gay men in China. “He was the only man I loved and now he’s leaving me. I know why he has to go, I know it’s his father and I would do the same thing. But still I feel so frightened and so alone, I have never felt so alone. I looked for this man for so long, and tomorrow he’ll be gone. Finding love in China is almost impossible, and I am frightened I will never find it again.”
In Hong Kong, I felt terrible for young men who felt they had to marry and have a child because it was so much a part of their culture — the very idea of coming out was anathema to their way of thinking, to their way of life. In China it is infinitely worse. At least in HK there is a gay community, a place to go and know you are not alone. In China this community is so much in its infancy, so small and so fragile that it can offer people like David little support. I urged David to recognize that life is often sad and unfair, but that there is enough joy and happiness to make it worthwhile. I told him that at the age of 21 it might be hard to realize that life goes on after the man you love goes away, but that it does. I told David that the key to his happiness would be his relationships; he had to reach out, to have a support system, friends he could go to like me.
I was sincere, but in my heart I wondered how easy that would be in China. It wasn’t the first time I had heard a young Chinese man gripped with extreme panic as he looked with hopelessness at the many obstacles that stood in his way to happiness. The time before was in Shanghai, where a very brilliant friend of mine was reduced to tears as he told me that all he could see in his future was pain, frustration and boundless loneliness. I put my arm around his shoulder and tried to give him encouraging words before I too broke down, a fountain of tears, because I couldn’t tell him that his fears were unfounded.
David was never a close friend of mine, but in this moment I felt he was my brother, and I wanted to reach out and shield him from his anguish. As soon as he said hello, I knew something was very wrong, and I got up from my computer and sat down on the couch. I knew he needed all of me. I know that I made a difference for him tonight, and our talk was long and serious. I know I couldn’t heal the problem, make it go away, but I know that I helped him just by giving him perspective. But what can I do to help ease the anguish of all these millions who, like David, see their lives as a kind of death sentence? China has, of course, by far the world’s largest gay population. How tragic that so many of these people go to bed each night and wake up each morning with an aching heart, knowing that even if they do as expected and marry and have their child, they have been sentenced, through no crime of their own, to live a life of unspeakable aloneness, bearing a sense of shame and self-hatred. Tonight I feel as though I have cried for every one of them, for every one.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.