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Homosexuality In China

Posted in Good People

With the recent US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, 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. But what about China? How does China view gays and gay marriage?  Is gay marriage in its future?

For answers to these questions, I turned to my friend and fellow blogger Richard Burger. Richard is the force behind the Peking Duck blog, which blog has produced around 5,000 posts since 2002!  I turned to Richard because he authored the critically acclaimed book “Behind the Red Door: Sex in China,” examining China’s sexual history and its sexual present. 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 China’s 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.  Very 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 
that “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 simply born that way, and that they have no choice in the matter. If an employer or colleagues found their coworker was gay, the attitude would most likely be one of 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 it ever is). 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 in a blog post a few years ago, was that higher-ups in the government told her to “shut up”: the topic was completely off the table. 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 well at some point accept gay marriage. It just won’t be any time 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 that was 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.

  • Mike

    But what about all these men running around with handbags (or manbags, or anything LV) fondling each other? If that’s not being openly gay, then what is it? Seriously, man bags???!!!

    • theAdmiral

      Mike – Having spent almost a decade living in Asia, mostly China I can promise you that the man bag was extremely practical. The largest denomination in (mainland) China was and is 100 yuan. Until 2007, that was $12 USD. Many places still do not accept debit/credit cards. A night out with a client can easily cost 1000 yuan or more. I carried a manbag until the day I got back to the USA.

      • Mike

        Admiral — I live in China. These days, one can pay by card pretty much anywhere. Nevertheless, I do usuall carry a couple thousand RMB in cash. Folded up in my pocket. That’s what pockets are for. Wouldn’t be caught dead with a man bag. It is a fashion statement.

        Besides, I have it on very good authority that most man bags do not actually contain the large wads of cash that they are supposed to indicate, just as most ostensibly displayed laptop bags do not contain laptops.

        While I was kidding before, trying to remain on-topic, I get the impression that attitudes relating to sexuality are seriously screwed up in mainland China.
        On average, women are expected (if not forced, often violently) to remain subservient, make boys, and are treated attrociously by the men, who on average, very unsuccessfully, try to be “macho man”. Unsuccessfully, because to me, with their man bags and other ill-chosen fashion statements, not to mention women-abusing, boorishness and man-friend-fondling behavior, they really look like a bunch of poofs, with sincere apologies to all poofs:)

        • Chris_Waugh

          Where to begin? I would’ve thought such rampant homophobia (sincere apologies, indeed) was considered unacceptable in this day and age.

          Secondly, stereoptypes are problematic enough as it is, but forcing stereotypes from one culture onto a very different culture is an even less effective way of interpreting what you see around you.

          • Mike

            Which part are you not getting?

            No homophobia here, non-PC expression notwithstanding.

            Note the smiley:)

            If there is any phobia on my part (as in aversion, not fear-of), then it is a boarish-faux-macho-women-abusing-man-bag-wearing-comb-over-phobia. I think such a phobia is quite acceptable these days.

            Or is it that I should be more accepting of physical (or any other form of) abuse because it is “culture”?

            Or is it that you actually agree that man-bag-etc indeed equates to (an expression of) homosexuality?

            Oh please! Next we’ll be disallowed to make fun of nouveau-wine-snobs who add Coke to their Grange Hermitage. Or of open flies, or toilet-paper stuck to snooty people’s shoes…

            Besides, now you are discriminating against me, boohoo, for being a stereotypophile:)

          • TheSpeakerOfTruth

            Please, Mike. No one with a brain is falling for your pretend White Knight (as in KKK) act. Chinese men treat women better than white men do, unless you don’t think murdering women is sexist.

            Typical racist white male pretending to be a defender of Chinese women. Funny, when I was in China I don’t think I met a single person that fits the descriptions you’re giving, but then again I don’t frequent massage parlors.

          • Mike

            Not being a self-appointed speaker of truth (seriously?!) and not being an American, I don’t understand what you are referring to. Besides, instead of “truth” (seriously?!) I am simply expressing my personal opinion (which is based on my personal obeservations), which is something that used to be legally allowed, at least where I come from. You are also allowed to express your opinion. Even when you label it as “truth” (seriously?!), and even when you label anyone who doesn’t share your “truth” (how about opinion and experience?) as not having a brain or being racist or whatever.
            * As far as I understand, KKK was/is an organization for harrassing African Americans (insert PC description if I am using the incorrect name) mostly in what used to be the Confederacy. How does that relate in any way to women or sexuality attitudes in China? Or has the KKK rebranded or refocussed itself and I missed the ad campaign? Sorry, I don’t keep track of these sort of things.
            * Where does the “murdering women” thing come from? I am not blessed by your sense of “truth” (seriously?!) and I don’t have any statistics on offer either way on murder rates, although I believe that in the USA, murder (with fire-arms) is more common than many other places, including China. Is this what you are referring to? Which “white” people are you talking about, anyway?
            * Leaving murder for what it is (objectionable, but not very relevant in this discussion, IMHO), the one “truth” that you (implicitly, but unfortunately not explicitly) demonstrate, is that opinion (people’s individual experience) is relative. I don’t really want to get into any “my China is bigger than yours” pissing contest, but the fact remains that in more than a decade of my (not your) experience in (lower to middle class family and non-expat T2 to T4 suburban) China, attitudes towards sexuality, women, etc, are severely screwed-up, at least compared to where I (not you) am from, originally.

            * Over the years, I (not you) have repeatedly observed what I (not you) consider to be “boarish-faux-macho-women-abusing” behavior, which includes relatively large and frequent amounts (compared to where I’m from) of physical violence (primarily) against women, mostly beat-ups and the occasional knife-waving, and what I (not you) thought was a rather “accepting” attitude of this by all around. Mind you, some of that did not involve comb-overs, but there were man-bags involved.
            * If you have not experienced these sorts of things, then count yourself lucky. As far as I understand, these things are fairly common. Refer to recent discussions regarding whether rape is not rape if the rapist wears a condom, or whether raping some type of women is less “bad” based on their profession or civil standing. It would be helpful if you’d supplemented your “truth” (seriously?!) with some statistics (and an evaluation of those, e.g. w.r.t. under-reporting), but hey, you speak truth, right?

            * Now, I’d be happy to be ‘KKK White Knight’ (still don’t get that reference at all) when that means, for example, throwing out a guy who broke his wife’s nose for merely interrupting him, or wiping up her blood, or for example, calling the police when I see beatings and/or knives are waved around (mind you, no murder, only assault, does that make it allright?!).

          • TheSpeakerOfTruth

            Enough with your anecdotes. Statistics mean something, and women are much more likely in the West to be 1) murdered 2) raped 3) beaten by husbands 4) raped by husbands 5) molested in childhood 6) divorced 7) beaten by strangers 8) raped by strangers 9) robbed

          • George Marshall

            I am American, white, and have been living in Beijing since 2004. Anyway, it does not matter if I am American (or India, Mexican, Korea, etc) and it does not matter if I am white (Brown, Black, Red, Blue or Green). The fact is that I have been living in China since 2004. I do not know Mike. But from my own observations, I too have seen what Mike has scene (including way too many comb overs).

            I hear it from my colleagues when we talk about women/wife issues. It is always interesting to hear how they would deal with dilemma. (“She is MY wife, she must do as I say”).

            It is also interesting when I talk to my female colleagues about my wife (Filipina) and how are relationships work (“We could never do that, in China, our husbands would not allow us too. Your wife is very lucky”).

            I have witnessed a few public beatings by men over women (no where else have I have seen a man strike a women in public). I personally stepped into stop one (with no help from any of the the man – bag carrying comb overs nearby).

            Do we have problems in America? Yes, we do, but at least we are man enough to admit them, deal with them and challenge ourselves to overcome our short comings

            Mike Lau and Truth, and the rest of you hide behind your sense of victim-hood. China too has problems, face up to it, call it out when you see it, deal with it and change it. Dont just regurgitate what the party has told you to say.

          • Mike Lau

            which includes relatively large and frequent amounts (compared to where
            I’m from) of physical violence (primarily) against women, mostly
            beat-ups and the occasional knife-waving,

            Absolute bollocks —-you’ve obviously never been to China —-the picture you paint is at such huge variance from reality as to make you a complete and utter laughing stock to anyone really familiar with China.

          • China Rick

            Mike Lau: I admire your attempt, but trying to correct or change those bigoted prejudiced peoples attitudes is like trying to hold back the tide. No matter what you say or prove with statistics they will never see anything beyond their own narrow, biased view of China and they will never understand the Chinese culture. Besides they always say “Where I am from this or that wouldn’t happen” If that is true, they should leave China and return to where they come from and stay there. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t miss them.

          • DominicMartin13

            One failing of the internet age – it allows even the most idiotic to be heard.

          • China Rick

            Mike, are you truly that ignorant of the KKK? It was formed to put down not just blacks but any non white person, Catholics, any non Baptists and homosexuals. This I know due to the fact that my grandfather in Kentucky was a Grand Dragon in the KKK and many times tried to recruit me into the ranks of the KKK. Not being a bigoted prejudiced moron, I never joined.

          • Mike Lau

            From another Mike exactly —Chinese men typically treat women well, and most do cooking and housework to a much greater degree than seen in the West. Further, there is little physical violence against men. I’ve never seen Chinese men going round trying to act ‘macho’ or aggressive as Western men do. The white Mike is exactly that — a racist white male pretending to be the defender of Chinese women so he can bed them.

          • China Rick

            Mike, I believe the only phobia you truly have is against the Chinese Culture. You seem to be like the Baptists of old, rigid, prejudiced, biased and intolerant of anything that doesn’t conform to your own view of right and wrong.

        • China Rick

          Mike: I am married to a Chinese woman and have lived in China off and on for 8 years and I have yet to see any of our many many female friends abused by their husbands. And if you are stupid enough to believe all that subservient Asian female crap, you have never been married to an Asian and you have never spent much time in a Chinese household.

    • HighSociety

      This is such an American response… Maybe in OUR society, “man bags” are seen as something that only “gay” men wear… But who’s to say that all societies are the same? A bag has absolutely NOTHING to do with sexuality. That’s like saying that women who wear suits to work instead of dresses are lesbians. Completely irrelevant. Open up your mind to society & realize sexuality isn’t about what someone has as accessories.

  • Anon

    Richard and Dan, Thanks for running this informative article. I had no idea how gays were treated in China before I read this.

  • Kaavya Ramesh

    I love reading your posts about social issues in China! This is fascinating. I wonder if it means there is something universal, but religion-neutral, about the primary purpose if marriage still being seen as having children. Do you think that’s what is driving this – the fact that marriage is still perceived primarily as a child-bearing function rather than a companionship or love-driven function? Great work, as always!

  • PaulR

    Just like Americans, Chinese mostly do not care what other adult people do in their private lives.

    But the author assumes the same naive, simplistic pose that homosexual rights promoters in the West affect. Rather, the question to ask is: what will the Chinese one-party Government do if / when the homosexual rights clique take on an organized, activist political agenda as they have in the United States?

  • gary chodorow

    Dan and Richard,

    Your post got me thinking about what same-sex spouses in China who are applying for U.S. immigration benefits need to do in order to prove to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing or another U.S. Consulate in China that their marriage is valid, meaning entered into for purposes of sharing ones’ lives together, rather than merely for immigration purposes.

    The cultural and legal obstacles for LGBT spouses in China that you point out will complicate U.S. visa applications. The State Department’s forthcoming guidance on adjudication of related applications will need to focus on protecting the confidentiality and privacy of these applicants, as well as cutting them some slack if they haven’t publicized their marriage to the whole world.

    Couples seeking immigration benefits will need to carefully document the “bona fides” of their relationship and insist that they be given a fair hearing by the U.S. Embassy or Consulates in China.

    Thanks again, and here’s my related post: http://lawandborder.com/?p=2616.

  • hanmeng

    I can’t find where Steven Jiang says that homosexuality was celebrated in China. And while Qing laws against homosexuality may not have been rigorously enforced, they were on the books.