ST: ‘Coming out’ in China

20 June 2009
Straits Times

MEMO FROM BEIJING
‘Coming out’ in China

While homosexuality is still largely a social taboo, Chinese society is slowly opening up

By Sim Chi Yin, China Correspondent

TWO empty white picture frames hung on the art gallery’s wall.

Hours earlier, the authorities had marched in, inspected each art piece and asked for the sexually explicit ones to be removed.

But apart from those casualties, Beijing’s first gay art exhibition opened without trouble last Sunday.

A crowd of 200 gay, straight, Chinese and expatriate guests gathered over soft drinks and beer at the Songzhuang Art District on the city’s outskirts for what organisers quietly hailed as a breakthrough for gays in China, where homosexuality was delisted as a ‘mental illness’ only in 2001.

On Wednesday, the five-day Beijing Queer Film Festival also started with no police and no disruptions.

Similar events and gay-themed film festivals in previous years had almost invariably been shut down by the police, who sometimes showed up in force.

In Shanghai, the country’s first week-long Pride Festival reached its climax last Saturday with drag shows, a ‘hot body’ contest and a symbolic gay wedding ceremony.

Mardi Gras it was not, but after the police stopped three of the 10 planned events, the rest went off largely without a hitch, said Shanghai-based organiser Hannah Miller, a school teacher.

Slowly but surely, in a gradually liberalising social environment, ever more ‘lalas’ and ‘comrades’ are coming out.

With homosexuality still largely a social taboo, the estimated 30 million Chinese lesbians (‘lalas’) and gay men (tongzhi or ‘comrades’) have traditionally stayed underground.

In the past five years, however, Beijing and other major cities have had a mushrooming of gay support and networking groups, magazines and websites. There are now more than 20 helplines across the country, some run by the parents of gays.

Gays are also becoming more visible in the media here. Last week, the English-language China Daily ran a front-page story and an editorial touting the Pride Festival in Shanghai as a symbol of a progressive China. Even the usually staid Xinhua state news agency carried a lengthy feature story detailing Beijing’s gay scene just before the Olympics Games.

And last week’s issue of the widely read Southern Weekend newspaper splashed the story of a pair of Guangdong university students ‘coming out’ – complete with a photo of the men clasping hands.

Dr He Xiaopei, executive director of the independent Pink Space Sexuality Research Centre in Beijing, said: ‘With more activities and media coverage, gays here can be seen more readily and people then realise ‘Oh, they are just ordinary people’. All that helps with social acceptance.’

The government’s openness over homosexuality is driven by a pragmatic need to fight Aids, with the state even funding some gay groups’ Aids prevention programmes, noted veteran women’s rights activist Feng Yuan. The United Nations estimates that unsafe sex between men could account for up to 7 per cent of HIV infections in China.

As filmmaker and leading gay advocate Cui Zi’en sees it, Beijing’s attitude towards gays still blows hot and cold depending on the political winds. But there is no doubt that Chinese society has become more tolerant in recent years, he noted.

In a survey of 400 people across Chinese cities last year, sociologist Li Yinhe, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, found what she termed a ‘quite high’ level of tolerance of gays – ‘possibly because China has no widely held religion and hence no religion-based opposition to homosexuality like in the West’, she wrote on her blog.

About 20 per cent of those polled said there was ‘nothing wrong at all’ with homosexuality, while 30 per cent felt it was ‘a bit wrong’.

Professor Li noted that those statistics fare well against comparable data from the West.

But even if religion is no hindrance here, laws, traditional family values and the social pressure to marry and pass on the family name – particularly pressing given the one-child policy – still define how most gays live.

‘The key difference between China’s gays and those in the West is that about 70 per cent of Chinese gays still marry,’ said Prof Li in a phone interview.

‘The pressure to marry is very great in China. It’s a tragedy, very inhumane.’

That most of China’s gay men dutifully marry also means a group of women, now known as tong qi (or wives of comrades), are unwittingly exposed to the risk of Aids – not to mention, emotionally and sexually neglected.

Gay women like ‘Amanda’, 26, an attractive media professional, simply lead a double life. To her mother, aunts and colleagues, she is an eligible but picky woman who has been matchmade, without success, about 50 times.

‘It’s the only way not to hurt everyone’s feelings,’ she said.

Likewise for divorced civil servant ‘W’, 39, who had been married for 11 years before falling for a woman five years ago.

She has not told her family she is gay but is hoping to have a child with her partner.

Since it is illegal for China’s hospitals to artificially inseminate an unwed woman, ‘W’ will resort to a do-it-yourself procedure with donated sperm.

The most difficult part for her will come after she becomes pregnant.

‘I will have to tell my family that I’m gay. And then I will have to marry some guy – just to get the right paperwork for my child to be registered and to go to school – and then divorce him.’

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