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Section II: Living in China continued—Dating, Sex, and Relationships

Homosexual Relationships in China

Qing Dynasty Homosexual Theme Scroll
Young men sipping tea and having sex from a hand scroll on homosexual themes, paint on silk; China, Qing Dynasty (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries); Courtesy of Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, Indiana, United States

As China continues to rise as an international economic power with the fastest growing middle class in the world, one notable byproduct of this rapid Westernization has been a significant increase in public tolerance and even acceptance of homosexuality. Prior to 1997, homosexuals were routinely harassed and even arrested for “hooliganism,” and it wasn’t until 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD, the Chinese version of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV, [Freund, 2001]).

In fact, one American psychologist currently living and working in Beijing notes that, in the absence of Christian right-wing special interest groups that exert a great deal of political influence in the West, homosexuals may actually enjoy a greater freedom in China than they do in their respective Western countries. Related, this position is supported by the fact that during the last three People’s Congress meetings in Beijing, legislation has been proposed that would legalize same-sex relationships (Moore, 2007). This legislative sentiment, at least among some Chinese government leaders, exists in stark contrast to the current sociopolitical climate in, for example, the United States where tolerance of homosexuality has more or less evolved into a pragmatic sociopolitical compromise of “don’t ask-don’t tell,” and where more than 40 states now have constitutional bans or laws against same-sex marriages (McKinley and Goodstein, 2008).

Nevertheless, and despite some anecdotal evidence that suggests an ever increasing open acceptance of homosexuality in China, what little empirical research evidence there is indicates the presence of mixed feelings, at best, on the part of the Chinese public-at-large. A 2008 study conducted by renowned Chinese sexologist Prof. Li Yinhe reveals that 70 percent of the 400 respondents surveyed believe that homosexuality is either "a little wrong" or "completely wrong" (30 and 40 percent, respectively). When asked what they would do if they learned that their child's school teacher is gay, more than half indicated that they would ask that the teacher be changed or fired. Conversely, and in apparent contradiction, 91 percent of the same respondents indicated that homosexuals should have the same employment rights as heterosexuals (Li, 2008).

Having lived and worked in China since 2003, and after numerous conversations on this very topic with Chinese colleagues as well as hundreds of students, my personal impression is that the Chinese do in fact maintain something of a dichotomous stance in regard to homosexuality. On one hand, and as a matter of principle, they feel strongly that homosexuals should enjoy the same civil rights as anyone else while, on the other hand and in the absence of any acquired religious prohibitions against it, they personally regard it as a disruption to the traditional family unit.

For example, when I asked my class composed mostly of overseas Chinese medical students how they felt about same-sex marriages in China, almost three-fourths indicated that they supported it as a matter of individual rights. When the same class was asked if they would approve of their own child marrying an individual of the same sex, not a single one of the 48 students in attendance raised his or her hand. When this discrepancy was explored qualitatively, what they shared was a pervasive concern over the foreseeable absence of grandchildren and the dissolution of the family line, especially in the context of China's single child policy. Thus, for most Chinese, it is felt that having a homosexual child would offer far less security in their old age and this seems to account for the majority of bias against homosexuality in China.

Emergence of the Gay Community

Qing Dynasty Homosexual Theme Scroll
Host Didier Zheng (left) and producer Gang Gang of the Chinese gay-themed show "Tongxing Xianglian" [AP]

The Internet appears to have played a major role in the emergence of the gay community in China. As far back as 2001, it was estimated that there were some 250 gay-oriented websites based in China and that number has probably more than doubled since then (Freund, 2001). Whereas traditional media in China have been slow to air information or programs devoted to homosexuality, the Internet has provided a much more open and accessible venue. In 2007, the Chinese website launched a weekly hour-long Internet TV show called "Tongxing Xianglian" or "Connecting Homosexuals," which was described by its producer as the country's first show to focus on gay issues and the first with an openly homosexual host, AIDS activist Didier Zheng.

Increased tolerance among China's government leadership is also evidenced by the fact that a public university in Guangdong province, Sun Yat Sen University, officially recognized the first gay student organization known as the Rainbow Group in 2006 (Aibai, 2006) and, China witnessed its first Gay Pride March on December 13, 2008 in Hong Kong with an estimated 1200 supporters in attendance (Collett, 2008). Finally, in 2006, a national gay hotline was placed into service to provide support and help to China's gay community. The national hotline is manned for several hours per day, seven days a week, and is available at 800-988-1929.

The three international cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have all experienced an enormous burgeoning of the gay scene over the past few years. Each of these cities has several exclusive gay bars while other primarily straight bars seem to attract a predominantly gay population on certain nights. Another interesting manifestation of China's increasing tolerance of homosexuality is the emergence of gay tourism. In recent years, travel companies have begun offering tour packages to China's gay visitors, the first of which was Go Pink China. Accompanied by gay English-speaking guides, Go Pink offers its mostly Western clients destination tours to Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi'an and custom adventure trips to the Silk Road, Yunnan, and Sichuan, among other places (Moxley, 2008).

Gay foreign teachers in China, especially those living and working in the three aforementioned international cities, should not have any difficulty learning about the various gay venues in each of those cities: A cursory search on the Internet will immediately disclose their names and whereabouts. However, keep in mind that most of these bars are frequented almost exclusively by Chinese patrons. In addition, while it is true that the Chinese-at-large are not, as a rule, influenced or encumbered by strong Judeo-Christian prohibitions against homosexuality, most of your Western colleagues are—so a great deal of discretion should be exercised, especially by those who are working at private English language schools. Finally, while it is true that homosexuality is not illegal in China, paying for sex is. Do not pay for sex under any circumstances or you may be subjecting yourself to blackmail or worse. As foreign guests in China, we do need to respect and obey the laws at all times.

Having just written that, anecdotal evidence suggests one might actually find a higher per capita percentage of homosexuals, both domestic and foreign, in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou owing to the fact that tolerance and acceptance of gay people are disproportionately greatest in these more Westernized areas—as is the case, for example, in San Francisco and New York's Greenwich Village, as these areas emerged as "safe havens" for homosexuals when, historically, discrimination and social ostracism were rampant. Official government statistics place the national per capita rate of homosexuals on the mainland at 2 to 3 percent (Xinhua, 2005), a figure that is close to the estimated rate of 3 to 4 percent worldwide based on more than a dozen studies conducted in the United States and Europe (Laumann et al., 1994; Mosher et al., 2005). At least one report from a gay foreign teacher in Beijing suggests that the prevalence of homosexual men there is probably much higher than the international norm.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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