Disconnects in Chinese society create a stumbling block to progress for China’s LGBT community.
This article originally appeared in China-US Focus.
The stage lights up bright blue and pink. Men crowd around the runway, their shoulders close, heads bobbing in anticipation. A wave of cell phones shoots up in the air. A figure walks on– face covered in glitter, fishnet stockings coating a pair of long legs, a powdered, French revolutionary wig reaching a foot in the air. Only when the figure approaches can you begin to make out the square jaw, the long, masculine face, the top of a leopard-print corset bouncing independently, an empty shell above a flat chest. When she gets to the front she wobbles and almost trips, unused to high heels, let alone the six-inch platforms she is wearing. She giggles nervously, but the crowd lets out a roar, urging her on.
Such is the scene on a typical Saturday night at Funky club in Beijing’s Sanlitun area. Every night, openly gay clubs like Funky and Destination provide a venue for shows, drinking, socializing, and meeting potential partners. “There are more people coming out [to clubs]. They are better dressed, and kissing in public which I never used to see,” says Jack Smith, the LGBT editor for Time Out, Beijing. “The scene is remarkably developed considering the kind of environment it is in.”
The environment it is in consists, in part, of a culture that is profoundly influenced by the Confucian emphasis on marriage and childbearing. “I think what Chinese people value the most is the entity of a family. It cannot be jeopardized. Mother, father, and children or child– that’s considered a standard ‘happy ending,’” says Eric, a gay resident of Beijing.
In addition to being the ideal “happy ending,” the emphasis on having children may have to do with the lack of a social welfare system. With the end of the Communist era promise of an “iron rice bowl,” parents worry that there will be no one to care for them as they age. Smith believes that the one-child policy only increases this pressure, because there are no siblings with whom to share the burden. “The relaxation of the one-child policy will make things better for LGBT people,” he says. “It might lesson the phenomenon of mothers saying ‘if you get together with a man and don’t have children, I will kill myself.” According to Smith, this reaction is fairly common.
Because of these pressures, many LGBT people will eventually enter into heterosexual marriages. Eric guesses the number to be around 60 percent, though of course there is no way to know for sure. “Many people who go to Funky have a wife and kids,” says Smith. One common phenomenon is internet support groups for women who have unknowingly entered into marriages with gay men. Also frequent on LGBT forums are postings by gay couples looking for lesbian couples, or vice versa, to help their fake marriages to appease family members.
Despite the strong emphasis on marriage and family, Confucianism, unlike many Western religions, does not outwardly condemn homosexuality. Smith believes this to be highly significant. “Religion is the worst thing for LGBT rights,” he says. “Because you can’t argue with it.”
Another deeply rooted value affecting the LGBT community stems from the Confucian idea of Zhongyong, or the “Doctrine of the Mean,” which encourages one to act in moderation and to avoid conflicts. According to Zhao Ke, the creator of Gay Spot, an LGBT rights and culture magazine, this ideal also dictates that one should not interfere in others’ personal affairs. “It’s not like in the West,” he says. “In the West, if I support something, I will strongly support it. If I’m against it, I am strongly against it.”
Eric shares this view. “Chinese people are like this: when it doesn’t concern you, it’s okay. But when it concerns you, it’s not. A lot of my friends’ parents know that I’m gay. They’re really friendly to me, but I don’t think they would want their children to be gay.”
While there are some adamantly homophobic people, most are unconcerned with homosexuality if it doesn’t affect them. Interestingly, this is the government’s stance as well. The government has adopted a policy of “no support, no condemnation, no promotion.” In other words, it allows a wide range of freedoms so long as no one is promoting a political agenda.
As is evidenced by its reaction to a wide range of political movements, the government considers popular participation in government to be a dangerous catalyst for chaos. It is considered the government’s place to direct politics, not individuals. The Beijing LGBT Center, a non-profit organization that does advocacy, holds social events, and provides queer-friendly counseling for the LGBT community, often has its events canceled by authorities at the last minute. Controls are especially tight in Beijing, due to its status as the nation’s political center. The annual “Pride Parade,” for example, is allowed in Shanghai but not in Beijing. Smith believes that this is not evidence of homophobia, but rather a fear of public gatherings. “I don’t think they would allow any parade,” he says.
At the same time, as long as people are acting non-politically, the government is comfortable letting things be. Whereas a police raid on the Stonewall bar in New York essentially began the gay rights movement in the United States, gay bars in Beijing are able to operate completely free from police harassment. Eric points out that if the police were to crack down on LGBT people or activities, it would also serve to politicize the movement. Without obvious repression, there exists little catalyst for action.
In the United States, many who have no connection to LGBT issues participate in the movement because it is seen as part of a greater cause for minority rights. The LGBT movement went along, for example, with the women’s rights movement and sexual revolution. Jessie, who coordinates events with the Beijing LGBT Center, feels that this should be the case in China as well. “Any people who have suffered discrimination from the majority . . . all these movements should go along with each other. I think that’s the same thing. It’s equal rights.”
Eric, however, feels that there is a cultural stumbling block to this kind of united front. “It’s very hard for us [Chinese people] to unite with people who are not us . . . it’s the Chinese character. If it doesn’t concern you, it is very hard to feel empathetic to it.” He says that even within the gay community, some are political and want marriage equality, while others chose to marry women while still secretly sleeping with men on the side. “So you have all these different kinds of goals and values within this community.”
Despite this, societal attitudes are changing. Liu Xin, the Marketing Manager for Blued, a leading gay dating app, says that young people no longer place such a strong emphasis on family responsibility and marriage. “Now a lot of people feel that they should chase personal happiness and love. Because people are freer, they are brave enough to pursue their desires regardless of what society perceives.” He says that diverse family structures are also becoming more common, such as D.I.N.K. families (Double Income, No Kids).
Zhao Ke believes that the movement needs to be depoliticized to move forward. He sees community service and education as a more practical way to help LGBT people than demanding political rights. Smith thinks the same, arguing that the Western “civil rights narrative” of an LGBT movement gets in the way. “Yet,” he says, “liberation is still happening . . . because LGBT are coming out.” He believes that the more Chinese people come out, the more normal it will seem, and the harder for the government to potentially discriminate against them. “Even if a third of all queer people came out, it would be a force to be reckoned with. That’s my dream. That’s my China dream.”