Last week, openly gay singers, Anthony Won Yiu-ming (黄耀明) and Denise Ho Wan-sze (何诗韵) have officially added their names to a campaign in order to try and raise awareness and gain support for sexual minority groups within China. The “Big Love Alliance” was unveiled on Friday, January 11, 2013. The 18 month long campaign will feature short film and photography competitions, books from the LGBTQ community and seminars in which legal and religious experts will offer help and advice.
The issue of gay rights has been making headlines across the globe for some time now, with gay marriage becoming legal in three states in Brazil, two in the U.S. last year (the most recent one being Maryland in 2013). Despite gay marriage becoming more and more widely accepted throughout the world, there are still elements of society that shun members of the LGBTQ community. According to a controversial study by Hinsch, homosexuality used to be considered a normal way of life in China until impact of Western cultural practices in the 1840s. Hinsch argues that homophobia did not become firmly established in Chinese society until the 19th and 20th Century through Westernization efforts by the late Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) and early Republic of China (1912-1949). I want to find out what the general status of the LGBTQ community is nowadays and how it has changed since ancient times.
Homosexuality is no longer illegal in China: it was decriminalized in 1997, and in 2001 it was removed from the official list of mental disorders. However, since these changes have been made the Chinese Government has remained largely silent on the issue of homosexuality and there are no specific laws in place to protect the LGBTQ community’s rights. Also there are still a lot of conservative elements in China’s communities who still consider homosexuality a “taboo”. In a lot of rural communities the belief that homosexuality is a treatable disease is still widespread.
The fact that the Chinese government has remained silent about LGBTQ issues has had two major effects. For one, no efforts have been made to remove the danger of discrimination against people of the LGBTQ community and further developments in the area of gay rights have been stalled. Secondly, the status of members of the LGBTQ community is unclear and official treatment of these sensitive issues varies across the country. This leads to discriminating elements being written into Chinese law. The general policy seems to be maintaining an official silence based on cautious, conservative policy. This is often expressed in Chinese idioms as 不支持, 不反对, 不提倡 (bù zhīchí, bù fǎnduì, bù tíchàng, not encouraging, not discouraging, not promoting). “In China the government treats homosexuality like it does not exist”, states an activist who volunteers in gay support groups around Beijing. This policy however presents the LGBTQ community with a host of problems. Many laws still define homosexuality as “abnormal” and the issue of gay rights is something that is very restricted across the media, especially TV. The most open forum available to members of the LGBTQ community to date is the internet. Additionally homosexuality is largely ignored within the Chinese education system, thus not offering any more support for youngsters struggling with their sexuality.
This policy of ignoring the problems faced by the LGBTQ community has led to many of its members marrying heterosexual partners—this has become so prevalent that it even has a name, tongqi or, roughly translated “homo-wife”. According to The Economist, 70% of gay men are in such situations and around 16 million Chinese straight women are married to gay men. However, Chinese tongzhi (literally “same will” or “comrades”) have found a way around being forced into marriage by their family: marrying each other. There are a host of websites and online forums dedicated to LGBTQ-identifying individuals looking for a partner to marry. This may seem strange by western standards but seems to work fairly well within the Chinese culture. Of course, these arrangements aren’t completely without deception: often strategically placed clothing, just in case the “rents drop by”: but it is an improvement over social desolation and depression.
In the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai however, homosexuality seems to be more widely accepted. Shanghai had its fourth Pride Festival in June 2012, and Hong Kong has been holding Pride celebrations, drawing a large audience from mainland China. Popo Fan, a gay Chinese filmmaker, spoke at the Pride celebrations in Cologne and explained the situation in China. “Though we don’t have a strong anti-LGBTQ religion, the biggest problem for us is the family issue, that’s why I made this film, Mama Rainbow.” Fan also stated that he and other LGBTQ activist try to fight censorship and oppression by holding the Beijing Queer Film Festival and China Rainbow Media Award. Fan’s film is a very touching documentary about mothers supporting their openly gay children in a society where it is not as widely accepted. Similarly Lu Rong, a retired Beijing resident, unlike other women of her age, spends most of her time looking after young gays in China, and her book “Those Gay Children of Mine” (《我的那些同志孩儿》 Wǒ de Nàxiē Tóngzhì Hái’ér) records the livelihoods of Lu’s gay friends. It is the first ever book to be published in China about gay life complete with ISBN number. Lu states that she wrote the book for the parents of homosexual children, to help them accept their children as they are. She also helps out with a free national helpline, founded by PFLAG China, and answers calls in Beijing to anyone in need of advice. Lu has rallied behind gay rights, not only for homosexuals but also for the wider community. “I am not only concerned about protecting gay rights, but also pushing for an open society with a harmonious relationship between gay people and the community they live in,” she said.
Picture courtesy of Beijing Tongyu Group.