China’s hidden society — how does LGBTQ fare in the current age?

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Gay pride

Being gay is seen as a taboo or a “novel lifestyle choice” in most countries. Out of the 195 countries in the world, only 29 countries have taken a step forward to combat discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community. These steps range from ensuring that they are not discriminated against at the workplace, to providing same sex marriage — the same stamp of validity heterosexual couples benefit from. 

China, though by population the largest country in the world and ahead of other countries in technology with digital currency currently in trials, has yet to support the over 20 million LGBTQ people that reside there. Lets’ take a quick historical journey to comprehend the queer community in China and how it came to be. Was China more tolerant post-communist cultural revolution than the West? And why, really, is modern China narrow-minded towards the LGBTQ community?

Passions of the cut sleeve

Author and literary content analyst Bret Hinsch’s work outlines how intolerance of LGBTQ is not a traditional aspect of Chinese culture, rather an adaptation of the western view of LGBTQ. In texts dating back to old Chinese dynasties, Hinsch demonstrates LGBTQ being celebrated in “passions of the cut sleeve” (duan xiu zhi pi – 断袖之癖). This phrase was used as an illustration for homoeroticism in Chinese literary works. It was only until the 20th century that same-sex relationships became a sinful act and were punished by the state. What changed? Former chairman Mao Zedong’s suggestion to encourage Asian tradition to incorporate modernity. This resulted in the decrease of cultural tolerance towards LGBTQ, in particular during 1966 and 1976, when men who met each other in parks were detained and accused of deviating. 

The marriage act in 1980, influenced by Mao Zedong’s successor; Deng Xiaoping announced the one child policy and sanctioned divorce if the marriage was not harmonious. This led to an increased tolerance for recreational sex. Gay subculture was witnessed in the late eighties, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong. On came the nineties, enabling more social and cultural diversity, allowing queer culture to reveal itself in mainland China. 

File:香港同志遊行-HONG KONG PRIDE PARADE 2014 (15737708051).jpg

A LGBTQ pride parade in Hong Kong Photo: doctorhoCCA 2.0

Internet and the emergence of tongzhi (同志)

Undoubtedly, the Internet finally allowed the gay community to secretly connect with other like-minded folks without having to physically meet them and risk their lives. 1994-1998 was a booming time for the gay community as websites addressing gays came into existence and chat room discussions became popular. Not only did the online gay community expand but so did the solidarity amongst the offline community as meet ups were commonly arranged in karaoke bars. In 1989, the word tongzhi (同志) meaning people with the same intent was used by a gay activist and has since stuck with the gay community.

The Internet has also enabled the emergence of digital currencies. Whereas some experts are concerned of China’s e-RMB being used as a means to overthrow the dollar and surpass the potential of cryptocurrencies, some organizations fear China’s use of its digital currency as a means to permit the government to discriminate against various groups as it heightens its capabilities to monitor, target and stop any transactions they might subjectively deem unfit. 

China has been no stranger to censorship and taking extreme measures to “save face,” by abruptly shutting down film festivals featuring LGBTQ content or raiding bars that show solidarity to LGBTQ culture. To combat this, LGBT Foundation, a Hong Kong based NGO announced that it would launch its own digital token on the blockchain. Why? Simple. “To generate capital in order to support LGBTQ individuals suffering from persecution around the world,” said CEO Christof Wittig.

Censorship is widely seen in China but companies go a step further to silently discriminate against LGBTQ content from streaming social media sites. Social media giants like Weibo — China’s microblogging site similar to Twitter — came under fire last year for creating moderation policies that singled out the LGBTQ community by grouping gay behaviors, such as same sex couple kissing or holdings hands, with pornography. The uproar from Chinese internet users pushed the company to reevaluate their policies and reverse the initial guidelines

China can turn its back on its growing LGBTQ community, but it cannot deny the financial worth of this economy and the untapped potential. Whether companies create ads targeted towards LGBTQ to show support or if it’s merely for financial gain is uncertain. Nonetheless adverts promoted by Alibaba group showing two gay men could allow doors to open that were previously shut tight. 

“I do, but . . .” 

Sham weddings are a hot topic in China. It’s a respite from constant pressure from traditionally-oriented families seeing children as a means to continue the family lineage. “You have only one child so you want your child to be as ‘normal’ as everybody else,” Xiaogang Wei, Executive Director of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute told CNN.

A common practice is to turn to organizations that can organize what is called a “cooperative marriage,” a legal agreement between two individuals who want to come together, not romantically or for the purpose of procreation but to carry out their sexual preferences in secret. Seen as a helping hand amongst friends, some go as far as carrying out the ceremony with another gay best friend so that both can thrive in peace. 

This straight marriage arrangement seeps into different aspects of people’s lives, including the workplace. Although, not directly targeted, if one identifies as gay, they could be passed on for promotion without clear explanations. Not having a “family” could have an impact on the types of tasks the person is or isn’t assigned to. There is no incentive to be out and proud, therefore, many go to great lengths to conceal their true identity for a chance at a decent life.  

Where to “gay” in Beijing? 

It is no surprise that metropolitan cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu are a lot more tolerant and do not go out of their way to make the gay community feel less welcomed, but it is still  “taboo” to be LGBTQ in modern China. Therefore, the likelihood of an encounter with a gay couple that displays affection publicly is a rare sight. 

When asked why, Stephan, a foreigner who has resided in China for 4 years alongside his boyfriend told Pandora Times, “I don’t particularly feel that I have to hide who I am but of course, I am not going to kiss my boyfriend in front of Chinese people because it might seem like I am triggering them.” Stephan also feels that the outlook towards lesbian couples is more open in comparison to a gay male couple. 

HK pride

LGBTQ values being promoted at a pride parade. Photo: Kon Karampelas


“Chinese men are supposed to carry forward the family lineage, that is how it has always been. If they come out as gay, the family thinks that a tradition that has been carried on for generations will be extinguished. It puts a lot of pressure on men”. 

Slowly but surely Beijing has come a long way since 1966 when men were punished for meeting each other in parks. Destination, one of the largest gay clubs in Beijing is located in booming Sanlitun, featuring male go-go dancers and nightly gay themed events. It is more common to find LGBTQ themed events at restaurants all around Beijing in contrast to ones that are solely and outwardly dedicated to the LGBTQ crowd. Chill bar, for instance, has a lesbian party the first Friday of every month. Mas, owned by two gay American men also has a soft spot for the LGBTQ crowd, along with Ten bar that hosts regular drag shows. 

Founded in 2008, The Beijing LGBTQ center, located in Chaoyang, is an NGO that provides the transgender community with a hotline service to call into and offers access to a network of LGBTQ friendly network of therapists. A Guangzhou formed organization founded in the same year called PFLAG China was started by the families and partners of LGBTQ individuals in China. It holds events to educate the community at large and works at a local level to improve the acceptance within the Chinese public by combating discrimination against them. 

Tongyu, located in Yayuncun in Beijing, does similar outreach as PFLAG China. A different approach to traditional offline NGO’S is a non-profit webcast LGBTQ association called Queer comrades. Their purpose is to bring public awareness to LGBTQ matters by documenting the queer culture present in China. How? They record and promote queer events organized by LGBTQ organizations and have a monthly show where they discuss topics like “coming out,” “my two moms,” “coming home,” and so forth. 

Is China more tolerant now? 

Xiaoying Dong, founder and coordinator of the “Advocates for Diverse Family Network,” one of the founders of “IFamily,” lawyer and feminist activist who has participated in advocacy work on gender equality and gender diversity told Pandora Times, “yes, the emergence of gay movements have improved the visibility and the cultural diversity of LGBTQ in China. The development of the internet and social media have further facilitated the sharing of information which has allowed for the gay movement to reach a larger audience.”

Xiaoying also shed light on the topic of work rights for LGBTQ. “To say China legally does not protect LGBTQ is inaccurate as the Chinese government has never outwardly expressed the opposition and the adoption of the LGBTQ employment rights protection bill. Experts, lawyers, and scholars concerned about the field of employment equality have been trying to promote the passage of anti-discrimination laws for more than 10 years, including discrimination against sexual orientation and expression of gender temperament,” said Xiaoying.

The main promoters are the Institute of Constitutional Government of China, University of Political Science and Law, and Civil Society organizations. “In the past five years, employment discrimination lawsuits against gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression have also emerged, which has greatly promoted the visibility of LGBTQ groups and the effect on employment anti-discrimination.”

Johnson Lin, manager of media development at the Beijing LGBT center shared a similar perspective to Xiaoying on the government’s protection of the work rights of the LGBTQ community. “The Chinese government hasn’t explicitly shown dissatisfaction towards LGBTQ,” Lin told Pandora Times. “Though many TV series and movies or some plots about LGBTQ are banned on the Chinese Mainland, the Chinese government accepted United Nations resolutions demanding it protect the rights of its LGBTQ population at the Universal Periodic Review’s conference last year. Thus, I hope it’ll honor its commitments in the future.”


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