Homosexuality in China: mini-podcast

As I was writing my book, the most eye-opening topic I researched was the history of same-sex love in China (followed closely by the history of prostitution). As I was finishing the book a friend helped me prepare a brief podcast on the subject. You may find it very surprising:


The trajectory from tolerance to complete prohibition and back to tolerance, at least in urban areas, is as dramatic as it is improbable.


The Chinese people are cool with gays; why isn’t the government?

According to some pollsters a majority of China’s young people are accepting of homosexuality. I’d guess a lot of middle-aged and older Chinese are too (as long as it’s not their relative who’s gay). Just imagine the joy of this scene as described in an article in The Global Times:

Marriages are common over the “Golden Week,” October’s National Day holiday. Normally they draw attention only from friends and family. But the wedding of Lu Zhong and Liu Wanqiang in Ningde, Fujian Province on October 2 drew crowds of onlookers with no personal interest in the couple. Lu and Liu are both men, and this was the first public gay wedding in China.

And the reaction of the crowds, numbering up to 1,000 people, seemed ecstatic. One cab driver told the South China Morning Post the scene was “grander than the Chinese New Year.”

Although not officially recognized, Lu and Liu’s loving union certainly wasn’t unpopular.

But however accepted gay love might be in real life, you won’t find it in Chinese TV. GLBT characters are essentially non-existent in Chinese dramas, despite the presence of a substantial number of GLBT writers and actors. Homosexuality is dismissed by anxious producers as unacceptable and threatening.

I have now seen at least ten different articles in different Chinese publications covering gay marriages, and every single one of them was positive. When, in 2008, I saw the photo of two just-married men in a passionate embrace outside Tiananmen Square splashed across the front page of China Daily, I wondered for a moment whether China would legalize gay marriage before the US does. (And maybe it would, if it were put to a popular vote. Good luck with that.)

The article even points out that there are a number of scenes in Hong Lou Meng that depict same-sex love, and that China has a “rich heritage of engagement with homosexuality.” We all know that, but we rarely read about it in Chinese mass media. (I have to admit, when I read Book One of Hong Lou Meng last year I was surprised at the casual references to same-sex love between both men and women in a book that is taught everywhere in China.)

So why do the censors suppress any reference to homosexuality in contemporary entertainment? Why are young people so broad-minded and the leaders so uptight? This is not to the country’s benefit, as the article says in closing:

If China wants to promote its soft power, then the tradition of benign tolerance and sexual flexibility exemplified in such works offers a chance to show the world sexual acceptance with Chinese characteristics.

This is actually a very perceptive piece that you should read in full. I’m happily surprised to see it in the GT.


“Fake ladies” dominate China’s “Happy Boy” show

A most interesting article that once again highlights China’s conservatism on the one hand and its tolerance on the other. While I can imagine this sort of thing being seen as cool among some segments of American society, it’s hard to picture weiniang (fake ladies) going mainstream anytime soon. (Then again, Liberace was popular all across America.)

The bottom line is that millions of Chinese youth are celebrating cross-dressing guys, at least some of whom seem to be true transgendereds. They are wildly popular. While there may be examples in the US of toleration for cross-dressers, we’ve never seen it go mainstream like this.

On a separate note, one quote from the article baffled me.

But noted sociologist Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University says weiniang shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

“It used to be a fad even in the Western countries,” Gu says. “In the movie ‘Titanic,’ Leonardo DiCaprio stunned many people with his feminine features.”

Were “many people” really “stunned” by DiCaprio’s “feminine features”? Did he seem at all transgendered or ladylike? I’m not convinced this was a widespread reaction.

Update: Then again, when it comes to other teen-oriented TV shows, the Chinese authorities can show a lots less tolerance.


Cross-dresser Xu Long, who insists he only dresses like a man. You decide.


Police in Beijing shut down China’s first “Mr. Gay Pageant”

I was surprised when I first learned via this video about the gay pageant event taking place. I was not surprised to learn a little while ago it was closed down right before it was set to start.

Police shut down what would have been China’s first gay pageant on Friday an hour before it was set to begin, highlighting the enduring sensitivity surrounding homosexuality and the struggle by gays to find mainstream acceptance.

Organizers said they were not surprised when eight police officers turned up at the upscale club in central Beijing where the pageant, featuring a fashion show and a host in drag, was set to take place.

”They said the content, meaning homosexuality, there’s nothing wrong with that, but you did not do things according to procedures,” Ben Zhang said. Police told him he needed official approval for events that included performances, in this case a stage show.

”I kind of saw that coming,” Zhang said.

Chinese police frequently cite procedural reasons for closing down gatherings that are deemed to be politically sensitive. Though the pageant did not have any overt political agenda, similar events in the past — such as a parade during the Shanghai Pride Festival last year — have been blocked by authorities.

”It totally has to do with moral standards and culture,” said contestant Emilio Liu, 26. ”If most people can’t accept it, then the government won’t let it happen.”

This is really too bad. China has made incredible strides in becoming more tolerant, and most Westerners would be shocked to learn just how open-minded many Chinese people in the big cities can be about this issue – as long as it’s not their son or daughter. The gay weddings a year ago in Tananmen Square were allowed to take place and China Daily did a wonderful job covering them (I wrote about it briefly here). So this is certainly a disappointment. Looking at the video I referenced, I can guess that it crossed a perceived moral line (maybe too much skin?). A shame.


Justice Edwin Cameron on the stigmatization of people with AIDS in China

Every once in a while my work puts me in the presence of greatness. It did so yesterday when I had the pleasure and privilege of working with South African Justice Edwin Cameron, the only public official in all of Africa to publicly state that he has AIDS. He is probably also the only openly gay official on the continent. Oxford-educated and a Rhodes Scholar, Justice Cameron’s contributions to human rights and AIDS awareness, and his personal courage, cannot be exaggerated.

Yesterday he spoke with reporters in Beijing about a recent Renmin University-UNAIDS survey [pdf file] on the attitudes of Chinese people in six cities – Kunming, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Wuhan, Zhengzhou and Beijing – toward AIDS and AIDS sufferers. The survey sampled four groups, migrant workers, blue collar workers, white collar workers and youth, and it provides some depressing if not especially surprising findings:

– More than 48% of respondents thought they could contract HIV from a mosquito bite, and over 18% by having an HIV positive person sneeze or cough on them.

– Around 83% of interviewees had never searched for information on HIV/AIDS.

– Nearly 30 % did not know how to use a condom correctly.

– Only 19 % said they would use a condom if they had sex with a new partner.

– Nearly 11% of respondents had had sex with people who were not their spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend during the past 6 months; 42% of those respondents had not used condoms.

– 30% think HIV positive children should not be allowed to study at the same schools as uninfected children.

– Nearly 65% would be unwilling to live in same household with an HIV-infected person and 48% of interviewees would be unwilling to eat with an HIV-infected person.

In other words, we haven’t made much progress since I first started writing about this topic five years ago, at least not in terms of people’s attitudes and awareness. In terms of treatment, there has been huge progress in China, including anti-discrimination laws and free retrovirals for anyone with AIDS. The government needs to do much, more, however. Justice Cameron said, for example, that while the government provides free retrovirals for treatment of AIDS, people must still pay for medications for opportunistic infections from their own pockets, which can easily impoverish them.

I don’t really know what it is about natural leaders, the way they stand out in a crowd even when silent, and the way that they make those they’re talking with feel like they are the only person in the entire world. Edwin Cameron has those qualities, and the reporters he spoke to were visibly moved when he made an urgent appeal to them to encourage HIV sufferers in China to act as activists and to speak out the way he has. That is the only way to overcome stigma, he said., noting that what makes AIDS so insidious is that in many places it remains “a silent disease.” People suffer in silence for fear of ostracism if they tell the truth. This fear discourages Chinese people from getting tested, and those who are tested seek to hide their HIV status at all costs.

“This is a tragedy,” Justice Cameron said. “The Chinese government has a good treatment program. But there is a disturbing pattern here: 35-40,000 people in China are receiving antiviral treatment but more than double that number need treatment.” And they remain silent, and will die unnecessarily, as AIDS today is fully treatable. He pointed to activists in the US in the 1980s who generated a wave of publicity and awareness that put a human face on the disease, lessening the stigmatization in America dramatically. In China and Africa, there are few such activists. That is one of the keys to ending stimatization, he said: Africa needs a Magic Johnson to tell people they do not need to be ashamed of having AIDS.

It isn’t just a matter of fearing ostracism from friends and family, however. He said that AIDS sufferers still get turned away from health clinics in China’s provincial areas. The most poignant moment came when he described to reporters how he needed a special invitation sent from the Chinese government to its consulate in South Africa for him to be permitted entry into China. He added that when he comes to the US he must undergo an even more humiliating ordeal, being tested at the airport to determine whether his AIDS is under control (I am not sure exactly what they test for).

Hu and Wen have visited hospitals and spoken out on AIDS, he said, but efforts to educate the public remain seriously inadequate. “I beg them to do more,” Justice Cameron said.

Perhaps the most controversial topic he discussed was how markedly different the AIDS epidemic is in southern and western Africa, where the level of infection is above 11 percent. This is, he explained, “a mature epidemic, meaning that everone, gay or straight, young or old, knows someone who has died of AIDS.” This is unique; no other geography on earth has seen a massive AIDS epidemic that has spread beyond the main risk groups (injection drug users, plasma donors, “MSM” – men having sex with men – and sex trade workers). It was feared back in the time when I wrote my original post that China would be like Africa, home to a massive epidemic seeping into the mainstream, heterosexual population. It appears that will not happen. Justice Cameron said no one was sure why this phenomenon occurred only in a specific section of Africa, but said the reason could be genetic. In China, the number of people infected by shoddy plasma collection has leveled off, and the levels of infection are beginning to mirror those in other countries, with MSM and injection drug users being the most affected groups.

Working with Edwin Cameron was an inspiration. It was also inspiring to see the level of interest in this topic among the Chinese media. You can se some of the articles here and here. This was the high point of my nearly two years in China, and a day I’ll never forget.


A turning point for gays in China?

This is certainly encouraging:

About 80 gays and lesbians from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan had taken four days off work and spent hundreds of dollars to attend the first Tongzhi Conference held in Hong Kong since 1999.


Donning rainbow necklaces on which they hung their name badges, the attendees listened to lectures on coming out, safe sex and same-sex dating, among others. These are routine topics for gays and lesbians in the West, but for this audience — mostly people from mainland China who were able to travel to Hong Kong because of recently relaxed travel restrictions — the gathering is an important, if primitive, step toward earning equality.

The article describes young Chinese people coming out to their parents, and how the Internet has provided the medium for gays in China to communicate with and meet one another. There are now more than 300 gay web sites in China, according to the article.

I found this especially moving:

It might have sounded like Homosexuality 101 to American ears, but when Rager Shen told his story, his listeners were stunned.

“I came out to my mother recently,” the 21-year-old from Shanghai said plaintively to an audience of about 40 other Chinese tongzhi, or homosexuals. “I always wanted to tell her that I am gay, and, finally, I did it. She was very upset, but I told her the purpose was so that gays like myself could someday live more easily. She has calmed down a lot now.”

Many sat in awe as Shen described his experience, insisting later that they could never do such a thing. Others pestered the slight, spiky-haired college freshman in a bright orange polo shirt about whether his act was selfish and whether he had merely unbur- dened himself by burdening his mother.

Shen argued that despite her anguished response — she confined him to their home and confiscated his cell phone for a time — he is “quite certain I did the right thing because she is my mother, and I want her to know me.”

In a country where bad news about censorship is only getting worse, it’s extremely encouraging to witness the progress that’s being made in gay rights. It was only three years ago that the government took homosexuality off its list of mental illnesses, and things are continuing to improve, slowly but steadily.

Related post: The plight of China’s gays


The plight of China’s gays

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.