Gay Life in China... Gay marriage in China..


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By Richard Ammon
August 1998
Updated March 2006


What are the chances of unexpectedly arriving in a second rate Chinese city (of only seven million) and accidentally finding a hotel across the street from a gay cruise park? Welcome to Wuhan, five hundred miles west of Shanghai.

We never heard of Wuhan until a week before we flew to China to sail down the Yangtze River. Three days later down river, our boat anchored along the wharves of this smoggy city where we virtually threw a dart at our guidebook to find a hotel. Two hours later we had checked in, showered, dressed and devoured another meal of rice, veggies, tofu and chicken (sitting a few yards from the live-snake cages) and were out on an avenue of intense traffic for an evening stroll.

Small Town Scene

"Let's go for a walk in that nice park there," I suggested. The eight p.m.
muted light allowed us to soon realize this was not an ordinary mom-and-pop park. A few single men sat along stone walls, some strolled in pairs, others furtively yet obviously cruised us as some exotic delicacy--(caucasias delecti?).

We pretended to be cool and walked the length of the park, the sky dimming, figures disappearing down bushy paths and others moving past us with sidelong glances. As we returned to the hotel we stepped up our pace to shake off a final persistent suitor. It must be frustrating to be attracted to westerners in a place like this, I thought, since few tourists stay overnight here after their Yangtze cruises.

Big City Scene

Over the next few days, the queer scene improved considerably after flying to Beijing and Shanghai. If there is a bright future to the gay scene in China, it's definitely happening in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and especially Hong Kong. When we called our friend Howie in Beijing for dinner he showed up with six other friends, collecting around a large table heaped with unpronounceable steamy dishes.

Most of these guys sported cell phones, beepers, western educations and fluent English. For two hours we swapped boyfriend stories, opinions about politics, careers moves, gay cruise places, food, police tactics, sex with foreigners--and mothers (they always know!)

These guys were unusual, not just for being gay but for their prosperity, education and confidence. And, perhaps for the first time in Chinese history, they also stood on the brink of choosing their own destinies.

Big Country--Big Changes

Few countries have undergone more rapid change in recent years than China. To be sure, most of the country is impoverished and third world. Poorly educated peasants and farmers eke out a meager subsistence on less than $100 a month.

In sharp contrast, the bold and brassy future has already arrived downtown, inhabited by young, bright and aggressive men and women, including many lesbigays. Armed with foreign diplomas, English skills and guppie (gay yuppie) attitudes, they are fully embracing the new enterprise of China. Prosperity and self-determination are now the call words for the new generation here.

I asked why things have changed recently. "The government has better things to do, like make money," said Zhen, a gregarious entrepreneur who recently started his own import business. "Money is now the most important thing for them, not harassing people. They have all these millions of people out of work from the Communist factories.... Chasing us does not give them jobs!"

This view was echoed by Gary, a jeans-clad salesman for a Danish clothing company and the most outspoken of the group: "The government is not more lenient now; but before people wanted to be good Communists and spy on each other, now they just want to make money. It has changed everything."

Their comments were similar to the words of activist Wan Yan Hai who recently said: "The change in the societal attitude toward gays and lesbians is closely related to...the economic advancement and expansion of political space for citizens. This helps the Chinese gay and lesbian community to organize for social, cultural, and educational activities."

Although financial independence is still uncommon in China most of these men enjoyed freedom of movement from heavy traditional family expectations. Two of them actually had their own places to live, however
modest. Domestic privacy is a highly desired goal since it opens the
opportunity for independence and intimate relationships.

Our host Howie reminded us that caution is still a watchword for gays in China; being able to pass in public is crucial to social survival at this time. In the past there was great risk of arrest; more recently there has been an easing of police harassment with few arrests in the parks and bars although there is still a threat of humiliation or exposure if caught in questionable circumstances. (The recent Chinese film "East Palace, West Palace' graphically depicts police hostility and gay humiliation.)


We were told that homophobia in China does not take the same aggressive form as in the west. Among working class folks, attacking a gay person is almost unheard of. "They may be surprised and confused by it and they will usually just walk away and ignore you. They won't try to harm you because it's not their business.

Also, most Chinese people don't know what homosexuality is, so they don't know what you're talking about," said Howie, who is out to his family. Another mediating factor is the absence of strong religious influence in China. Communism is a secular social system that demands outward conformity of behavior and imposes less moral evaluation on personal character than religion does. Lacking the virtue/sin debate and the emotional fervor that accompanies rigid beliefs, it's rare to find violent gay bashing.

Bar Scene

In Shanghai, another dinner with friends reaffirmed much of what we learned in Beijing. Bar hopping there afterwards, we visited a new venue called 'Feeling Bar' where we were welcomed by one of the owners, Thomas. He and his partner Eddie have been together for ten years and are Shanghai's most out couple. Our host Stephen said they are very courageous. They own and operate another venue 'Tree Bar'. Once or twice a month there are 'costume' parties at the bars when some patrons show up in drag. (Tree Bar has since closed and reopened in another location.)

At 'Bluestone', a busier and smokier bar than Feeling, everyone appeared
to be having a relaxed, bubbly and friendly time. Artfully provocative
pictures of men dotted the walls. The music was not loud and people could
talk. Philip, the owner, dressed in a tank top and fashionable trousers
welcomed us with open arms escorting us to a table. Over cokes and beers
he told us he was opening a new business at a larger location with a disco as well as bar. He didn't expect any trouble: "the authorities want you to make much money as long as you can; as long as it is clean--no drugs or sex."

The fragile peace between gays and the police was briefly strained a month later when President Clinton's visit to China prompted a three-day closure of Thomas' two bars by the Public Security Bureau which claimed Clinton would be attending a party in the area. Philip's new bar 'Asia Blue', however, opened on schedule and was not affected by the security efforts.

More Exposure

In the past few years, homosexuality has been increasingly featured in books, radio programs, magazines, stage drama and films. Even though the government may dislike or attempt to suppress the representation of homosexuality, grass roots advocacy has urged the topic onto the social stage in China.

'Hope' magazine is a mainstream magazine by Guang Dong Women's Association (which is a part of the government). The issue of June 1998 published twenty-one pages of articles on gay issues. Most of the articles were positive, according to our friend Jason in Shanghai. The magazine is one of the most popular magazines among young people with its primary target of young girls as it focuses on fashion, jewelry, music, romance and movies.

A second, less well-known new magazine is 'Friends' which has no pictures but focuses on homosexuality: love, coming out, family problems
and self-acceptance . It was started in February 1998.


In Shanghai, a professor, Li Dailin, sponsors a talk show program
on Shanghai Radio which has been educational and helpful for people in
Shanghai. His public position on the radio is that homosexuality is just
another life style
and should not be discriminated against. There is also
a call-in session during his program.

From Shanghai, a friend wrote: "The radio station is run by the
(no private media is allowed in China.) Most audiences enjoy
the program because they can know more about sex, which is actually not
easy in China. In Shanghai, I believe most people have a very open
attitude towards homosexuality. A friend of mine just came out to his
parents. And his parents even invited his boyfriend home to dinner."

(In September of 1999, Professor Dailin opened China's first and only 'sex museum'--The Shanghai Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture. Unfortunately, Li's open mind appears to have closed somewhat; he displays one ambiguous "homosexual" artifact in the section labeled 'Unusual Sexual Behavior'.

Professional Journals

In the fall of 1997, a small but remarkable debate occurred in the pages of the Zhejiang Province Mental Health Institute journal which is distributed to professionals as well as the public. The issue openly debated depathologizing homosexuality. It was the first time in China that sexual orientation was addressed in such a widely public forum. The contributors were doctors and scholars who held opposing opinions about the condition of homosexuality and its place in society.

New therapy

Over dinner in Shanghai, another friend Jason related a story about his friend who recently went to a Chinese doctor specializing in sexual problems. With some hesitation, the friend revealed he was gay and wanted some help to change. Surprisingly, the doctor did not urge the patient into some lethal reconstructive program, but rather counseled him wisely suggesting that a gay person does not have to change; rather, he should consider a more honest way to face the truth about himself. We all agreed this was another sign of healthy change for China, although it was not likely a common therapeutic view.


Not since the Communist takeover in 1949 has so much information been generally available to the people in China in all media forms. Thousands of Chinese are now using the Internet. Despite attempts by the authorities to block web sites, China's users find a way around them. The Net has quickly become a major channel for gay contact. Along with its virtual access to international sites, China's gays are accessing each other in unprecedented numbers. (See links)

At one Internet 'cafe' I visited in Shanghai, all twenty terminals were busy with young men cybering away. In Xi'an, the city of the terra cotta warriors, a large banner hung across a central building: "Internet Club--Join Now". (In 2000, there were numerous trendy Internet cafes and shops across Shanghai, including one in the grand new library.)

Sex Survey

In March of 1998 the Southern Daily newspaper, printed an article entitled "If Society Were Tolerant", discussing a survey of gay men in all 30 of China's provinces. The survey was conducted by Dr. Zhang Beichuan (who is also the editor of 'Friends' magazine). The preliminary conclusions were that loving relationships between people of the same sex is not rare in modern China and that lesbigay subculture exists all over the country.

The news report ended with an appeal by the reporter, "If more people can
understand the nature of life, expand the space for life, improve the quality of life, enrich the substance of life, all of this would help society as a whole to establish a harmonious and beautiful living space."

From Wuhan to Shanghai, there are innovative people and places which are able to take advantage of the 'new China' in the throws of economic and social reform. Quietly but persistently their presence is being seen and heard. As the nineties were the decade of 'coming out' in the West, it seems China's lesbigays may well see their place in the sun during the next generation.

Gay Life in China:

China is the forth largest country in the world with a population of approximately 1.3 billion people. The Chinese forum portal ChinaBBS.com estimates that there could be as many as 30 million gays and lesbians living in China, although the actual number is unclear. Few 'comrades' or 'tongzhi'—slang for homosexual—live openly due to social/cultural pressures and lack of awareness.

"On the mainland, being homosexual is still very hard," China Daily reports one man as saying. "Under pressure from families and society, most homosexual people dare not reveal their sexual orientation and have to get married to someone of the opposite sex.

However, the producers of the new Internet TV show, Tongxing Xianglian or "Connecting Homosexuals," hope to change public perception of Chinese gays, according to an AP report.

Gay marriage in China

Img_1571 I recently wrote an article about homosexuality in China, the gist of which was that gays in China’s cities feel freer than ever _ except for one aspect. They endure huge family pressure to marry and bear offspring. Many gays marry, have a baby, then divorce. Click here for the story. The photo above is of a young gay man I quote in the article.

I bring it up because one of the people I quoted is Li Yinhe, a noted sexual behaviorist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). I arranged the interview reluctantly because I had heard she likes to charge for her views, something our news organization flatly refuses to do. Ever. Apparently the meter doesn’t run for the first 15 minutes, so I was prepared for a quick meeting.

She was quite relaxed. After about 12 minutes, I wrapped things up but threw in a quick question about why she wants to charge journalists. She laughed it off, suggesting it was just a way to keep media requests from overwhelming her.

In fact, it turns out that Li Yinhe is under a great deal of stress. I tip my hat to the Peking Duck blog for translating and reprinting one of Dr. Li’s latest blog entries. It underscores how outspoken social commentators can endure huge pressure themselves in China. Dr. Li has been a proponent of legalizing gay marriage in China. Not any more. Here is what she wrote:

“I've had conflicting feelings lately. People have long criticized cynicism -- a few years ago an overseas free thinker (Chinese) whom I respect very much criticized the growing cynicism among Chinese intellectuals. Unfortunately, in China, there are times when cynicism is the only choice we have. And it's the choice I'm facing now: higher-ups [at CASS], under pressure from "people who aren't Average Joes," would like me to shut up. Actually, the higher-ups don't think there's anything politically sensitive about my choice of topic -- the pressure isn't coming from the government (if it were, [CASS] would have folded long ago), but even if I am just talking about things that don't have any political sensitivity attached, they're still about to fold under the pressure from outside. So starting now, there will be a while - maybe the rest of my life - where I've decided:
1. to accept as few press interviews as possible.
2. to publish as few papers related to sex as possible.

I want to start enjoying my life. I don't want to uphold any more of my social responsibility, because it's interfering with my life, and it's causing pressure on my higher-ups. They're good people, and even if I think that cynicism is bad and wrong, perhaps it's the only way.

Gay marriage is not something that our country can accept at this stage of its cultural development. History will change when it must. And perhaps I will only be able to be a bystander when the change comes, rather than a participant.”

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