Mixed signals and pessimism: The outlook for China’s LGBTQ community

By Joshua Cartwright

NANJING, China — At its annual meeting, China’s parliament will consider something it had promised it would not: legalizing same-sex marriage.

The initial refusal came just months after Taiwan, in 2019, became the first place in Asia to allow same-sex marriage. But after a public comment period in Mainland China delivered over 200,000 responses in support of the idea, the parliament’s Commission for Legislative Affairs announced that they would consider it after all. 

The news garnered hundreds of millions of views on Chinese social media and generated excitement — particularly among LGBTQ activists, who were surprised by the amount of support. But it also sparked debate online, with netizens both for and against it. 

These mixed responses illustrate how hard it is to nail down the public attitude towards homosexuality in China. “It’s kind of contradictory,” Wang, a partially-out gay friend, told me. “Most Chinese are neutral on this issue,” but if you ask parents, “they accept it — as long as it’s not their child.”

When I asked Li, another partially-out gay friend, what it’s like to be homosexual in China, he laughed and said, “not good.”

That reflects his own experience. After Wang came out to his parents, they implied that it was just a phase. They questioned if they should allow him to study abroad and said that it was fine if he “had fun” with boys…as long as he ended up with a “traditional family,” meaning a wife and child.

This reaction is a relatively ‘light’ version of an unfortunately well-established pattern; a 2016 joint study by the UN Development Programme and Peking University found that the bulk of abuse of Chinese LGBTQ people occurs at home, and one of the unique forms of discrimination within families is forcing their gay child into a heterosexual relationship. Chinese people often point to culture: filial piety, or more specifically, the duty to have children and carry on the family line.

When I asked Li, another partially-out gay friend, what it’s like to be homosexual in China, he laughed and said, “not good.” Even though homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and declassified as an illness in 2001, the idea of it as a ‘disease’ persists. Those who come out suffer emotional and physical abuse, lower job prospects, and the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Gay conversion therapy (sans religion) is still promoted. And the Chinese Communist Party — whose official line is “don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote” — does nothing to protect the LGBTQ community. Traditional (and social) media bans on depictions of LGBTQ love and conversations about LGBTQ issues renders the community largely invisible to those outside of it.

“The gay community doesn’t feel like a community. Gay people’s power is atomized, like that of women and migrants.”

Despite that erasure, studies indicate that the overall attitude towards the LGBTQ community has improved (especially among the younger generation), or at least that the attitudes of those who disapprove are becoming milder.

Wang and Li generally agree with that assessment. But Francis, an out lesbian, disagrees, calling the situation ‘bipolar.’ “Back in my twenties, there were not so many LGBTQ topics back then, but the whole atmosphere was way more open,” she said. Everyone she has come out to has been supportive. But weighing that against the current censoring of anything ‘gay’ or the hateful comments of online trolls, Francis argued that, “if I could choose, I think ten years ago was better. Now, the atmosphere is very sick.”

Most news and academic articles tend to focus on the experiences of gay men. But when asked about differences between the experiences of gay men and lesbian women and what’s being left out, Francis pointed to a wider problem.

“I think it’s not the difference between gay men or lesbians; it’s because of the gender difference in China, not only for the LGBTQ community,” she explained. She highlighted the lack of recognition of women, using the current coronavirus epidemic as an example. “There are so many female doctors and nurses taking part, but what appears in the media are all male figures.” But Francis admits that, for whatever reason, lesbians are more reluctant than gay men to speak out.

In China, if you want to express your sexuality or gender, you have to be able to afford it.

Although these interviews were meant to explore differences, they ended up exposing some shared experiences.

Each interviewee estimated that at least half of the LGBTQ people they know end up in fake straight marriages. “There’s no way out from that, their life sucks,” Wang said. “They won’t have sex after having the first child. It’s a pathetic ending.” 

The same is true for lesbians and other LGBTQ people, and for the same reason: money. Francis is financially independent and makes a good living, so she is free to live her life however she wants. But Francis’s trans friend relies on his parents, so even though this friend (who was assigned female at birth) identifies as a man, he won’t transition. To make things worse, his parents constantly play matchmaker and introduce him to men. In China, if you want to express your sexuality or gender, you have to be able to afford it.

All three are pessimistic about the future for China’s LGBTQ community, mainly because of how conservative government officials are. Francis laughed when asked about this. “On the contrary, my straight friends are all optimistic,” she explained. “The BFF of my girlfriend called us just a week ago, talking about the Taobao commercial showing a gay couple. ‘See, there’s hope! China is changing! You have to have hope!’ We were rolling our eyes.”

“If I could choose, I think ten years ago was better. Now, the atmosphere is very sick.”

Li called attention to a different issue. “The gay community doesn’t feel like a community,” he said. He attributed it to the lack of openly gay people in prominent positions and the crackdown on NGOs in China. “Gay people’s power is atomized, like that of women and migrants,” Li sighed. “I think change will be slow.”

Last March, the Chinese government backed the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendations for LGBTQ rights. One of them is the adoption of legislation banning discrimination within one year — a deadline China has missed due to the postponement of its annual political meetings.

Regardless, legalizing same-sex marriage could be how the Party plans to deliver on that promise. But China’s LGBTQ community isn’t holding its breath.

Note: As the two gay men I interviewed are only partially-out, I’ve used pseudonyms instead of their real names.

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