GAY AND LESBIAN LIFE IN CHINA
Woman spying on two men Gays are more out than they were in past in China. There are many gay bars, newsletters and websites that can operate openly. But many gays choose to keep a foot in the closet. The Internet often is the safest place for gays and lesbians to interact and socialize because they can do so anonymously.
Most cities have known places---restaurants, bars and parks---were gays open hang out. Guangzhou has Western-style gay bars. In Shanghai gays cruise the Bund at sunset. In Chengdu in Sichuan they gather in Lu Xun Park in the evening. In Beijing they gather in many places: Dongdan park is worked by volunteers who pass out AIDS literature; Straights and gays mingle at the Nightman disco, where gay men sometimes dance in small groups.
There are fewer gathering places and a less developed gay scene for lesbians than there is for gay men. One Chinese lesbian told the New York Times. "The pickup attitude that a lot of men have is less true for women. We use more informal networks, going through friends."
A gay-themed chat show called "Gay Connection" debuted online on a site run by the Phoenix network in May 2007. The guests have included the owner of a lesbian bar in Beijing. Advise was given on how to meet gay friends.
Tongyu is a lesbian group that meets publicly on Saturdays in a shopping mall restaurant in Beijing. Sometimes gay couples will embrace and engage long passionate kisses. Mostly they meet to socialize, relax and discuss issues that affect them.
"A few years ago coming out among people I know was news, but not now," says Hui Jin, a veterinarian and the executive director of Beijing's LGBT center, who wears her hair short and spiky and at an interview was sporting a T-shirt showing a monkey juggling a skull, and who admitted sheepishly that she is still not out to people at the veterinary hospital. [Source: Isaac Stone Fish, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2011]
Meeting Other Gays in China and Realizing You Are Gay
Finland’s Radio86 chatted with Marco Qu, a 26 year-old bar manager and DJ from Harbin, in north-east China, to learn more about the homosexual scene and the gay community in China . On whether it is easy to find a man in the world's largest populated country Marco said: It depends upon what kind of man you want! I guess it's the same with straight people; it's not very difficult to meet people, but if you'd like to find a decent one that you can actually be with, well... The gay community is not very big. We have a few gay clubs here and it's always busy at the weekend. I think people don't really go out that much, so it's a little bit difficult to meet guys in the bars, so most people do it on the internet. [Source: Rabio 86, FutuVision Media Pinninkatu 55 FIN-33100 Tampere Finland]
When he was asked when he first realised he was interested in men, Marco said I think I was in high school. I always knew that I was different, but I didn't know what that was. When in middle school and high school, people started having girlfriends, but I was never so interested in having a girlfriend. I really didn't know what that was until I started to watch porn, and then I found that I wasn't really looking at the girls. I knew then that I was different, but I still didn't know what I was until I finished high school and met a guy through the internet. We chatted for a while, met in person and then we started dating---then I knew: okay, this is gay.
Gay Marriage in China
Same-sex marriages are not officially recognized in China, but that hasn’t stopped some people from trying. The first gay marriage in China took place in Chengdu in January 2010 between Zeng Anquan and Pan Wenjie. The couple said “I-do” before more than 200 friends and supporters. Afterwards, Zeng, a 45-year-old architect, told the China Daily, “the wedding is our happiest and most precious moment. We don’t care how others consider us as long as we are together...We are deeply in love and will never desert each other.”
No family members showed up to Zeng and Pan’s wedding or gave their approval to the union. Zeng told the China Daily, “All the capital in my company has been frozen by my younger brother. My sister warned me she would never call me her brother unless I break up with Pan; and I?ve answered hundreds of phone calls from friends and relatives who say they feel ashamed fo me.” Zeng and Pan said their parents sort of came around, switching from “opposition” to “it’s okay.” Pan’s former girlfriend offered to be a bridesmaid.
The strong pressure to marry in Chinese society is one reason why some campaigners see gay marriage as a goal. One gat man told The Guardian relatives had pestered him for years about finding a girl to marry. “When Ifinally told my uncle I had a boyfriend he wasn't surprised but said, 'Well, that's not a long term thing...They think having fun with boys doesn't mean you love them; you will still get married in the end.
Li Yinghe, an academic at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has repeatedly proposed legalising gay marriage, but thinks the Chinese political system must develop first. “When there are ways to deliver these demands, this issue can be put on the agenda. Maybe it will take 10 years - maybe it needs decades,” she said. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, February 25 2009]
Gay Bars in China
On the gay night life scene in Beijing, Marco said: “There's not so much. Like tonight is Monday, so if I go out with some gay friends then maybe Kai bar, which is very gay friendly and I've been deejaying there for the last five years. There are Gay Fridays at Alfa Club, a bar, restaurant and club, which holds an 80's music gay night. The gay club Destination is also always here. There are some gay nights on Thursdays in Mesh Bar, opposite, and then on Tuesdays there is the White Rabbit Club. Have you ever organised any events for the gay community? [Source: Rabio 86, FutuVision Media Pinninkatu 55 FIN-33100 Tampere Finland]
Some cities have fairly active gay scenes. A bar in Beijing has an unofficial "gay night" every Wednesday in which customers pay $6 for a mug of beer to socialize but not dance. In the 1990s, a bar called the Seahorse sponsored a Valentines party in which gay couples danced together and sang karaoke songs to their partners but the organizer lost his job and the spectacle was never repeated.
Describing the scene at the Galaxy in Shenzhen, Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “Young men in tight jeans swoon together singing karaoke. Androgynous types drink beer and throw dice. Men sporting baseball caps search for love or sex.” Pretty boy prostitutes are known as “ducks.”
Shanghai even has a well-known gay bar area in the French Concession called the Gay Triangle, with one bar made from an old bomb shelter and another decorated with Mao era memorabilia. A club called Bobos, according to the New York Times, caters to a ‘somewhat hairier, full-bodied set, known as panda bears.” D-2 is a health club known among Shanghai gay community for its hot bodies.
Gay Community Gatherings
On a GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) community, Marco said, GLBT doesn't really do much here in Beijing. At the last pride parade there were like 100 people who turned up, which is more like a party. There was the Shanghai Pride last year, but here they have it in a bar because Beijing is the capital and I think the Chinese government has a real issue with, you know, being gay. Over the last five years they have said, “We don't have gay people in Chffina,” which is a joke, but in Beijing now, in China, you can't do all those things. [Source: Rabio 86, FutuVision Media Pinninkatu 55 FIN-33100 Tampere Finland]
If you parade outside with, let's say, 40 people doing the same then it's illegal and they'll send you to prison for about 24 hours. Why do you think the government has an issue with homosexuality? They like to control their power, their central power. They don't want anyone, any group of people to take their power. They say, “This is what it is. You have to do what we say. You have to follow the central power.”
Chinese Gay Dating App Attracts 15 Million Users
On relatively new gay dating and public service apps in China, Louise Watt and Aritz Parra of Associated Press wrote: “Danlan.org has spawned a Chinese-language dating app for men called Blued that has garnered 15 million users, 3 million of them outside China, over two years...The app allows users to look for people by location or the last time they logged on. It also enables group settings so people can organize activities such as hiking or assembling a basketball team, as well as providing information from health authorities on locations for HIV testing and treatment. [Source: ABC News, December 1, 2014 -]
“Wu Zunyou, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases center, praised the app for its usefulness in conveying information to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community. “It’s very hard to receive so many registered users in such a short time,” Wu told The Associated Press last week at an AIDS awareness event held by Blue City and also attended by local government officials. “None of our public awareness websites can receive such attention. This is a very important channel to be able to spread information about AIDS prevention among the LGBT community.” -
“Andrea Pastorelli, a policy specialist at the United Nations Development Programme, said the Chinese CDC had recognized the app’s usefulness in reaching people they were unable to. “They are having a real issue reaching out to the most marginalized people and in China that’s where the epidemic is,” he said. “The fact that they have been able to attract this much money shows that there is interest in the so-called pink market,” Pastorelli added. “Private companies are realizing that gay people exist and gay people represent a huge market.” -
Creator of the Popular Chinese Gay Dating App
Louise Watt and Aritz Parra of Associated Press wrote: “By day, Ma Baoli was a high-ranking officer in a seaside city police force. By night, he ran a website for gay people to share experiences and on which he spoke under a pseudonym about the pressure he faced as a homosexual. After several years, the police force found out and told him he could not run a private website that was earning money from advertisements while serving as a police officer. Ma chose his website—Danlan.org—a move that later proved fruitful. [Source: ABC News, December 1, 2014 -]
“In a country where the government considers any activism dangerous and where homosexuality has traditionally been taboo, Ma has managed to build his business partly by reaching out to government agencies and showing them he can provide a public service in spreading safe-sex messages. In 2012, he was invited to meet with now-Premier Li Keqiang because of his AIDS prevention work. -
“For Ma, 37, who goes by the online pseudonym Geng Le, the investment signals a shift in attitudes already among Chinese toward homosexuals. Five years ago, his website Danlan.org would be regularly shut down. Today, that doesn’t happen anymore, and it carries discussions on whether to legalize same-sex marriage, for example. “I now feel more and more comfortable saying, ‘Yes, I’m gay and yes, what I do is run a gay-themed website,’” he said. Still, the app does provide privacy for people who are worried about others finding out about their sexual orientation by allowing them to use their smartphone to meet someone, he said. -
“Ma quit his job as deputy director of a division of the Qinhuangdao police force in March 2012. He still misses being a police officer, his dream job since childhood. He says some former colleagues cannot accept what he is doing because they think homosexuality is “abnormal.” Ma says he hopes to change their thinking. -
Chinese Gay Dating App Attracts Silicon Valley Investors
Louise Watt and Aritz Parra of Associated Press wrote: In November 2014, Ma’s “company, Blue City, received $30 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital company DCM Ventures. Ma hopes to use the money to expand abroad and possibly prepare for an IPO. He is also considering launching a dating app for lesbians. [Source: ABC News, December 1, 2014 -]
“An investment manager at the Beijing office of DCM Ventures who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the media confirmed that the company had invested $30 million in Blue City, saying its future outlook was promising. “Five percent of the total population are LGBT people,” she said. “Social attitudes toward gay people will become more and more tolerant in the future.” -
“Blue City employs about 40 software engineers, designers, salespeople and advocates.“I would like to use the power of the economy to promote the LGBT community,” Ma said. “In many ways, the economy can trigger changes in policies. So if, for example, I do this thing very well, if my users go from 15 million to many more in the future, if we can go public, I can tell the government: See, we can go public being a ‘gay company’ and we haven’t caused you any trouble.” -
Xiyadie’s Gay-Themed Chinese Paper-Cuts
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Orgies and anal sex hardly seem the usual fodder of traditional Chinese folk art, but that is exactly what one Chinese artist is depicting in a series of provocative paper-cuts. Xiyadie, whose pseudonym means "Siberian Butterfly," portrays graphic and daring depictions of homosexual love---long considered taboo in China---instead of the usual decorative flowers and birds. His work was featured in the exhibition "The Metamorphosis of a Butterfly," held at the Flazh!Alley Art Studio in San Pedro, California from May to July 2012. [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2012]
“Xiyadie, who does not use his real name to mask his identity, was born in a farming village in northern Shaanxi province. Today---in addition to his artwork---he works in Beijing as a cleaner, handyman and cook. He, like millions ofChina'smigrant workers, sends money back to family; much of his roughly $190 monthly salary goes to his wife and two children, who live thousands of miles away in his hometown.
“Though tradition has trapped the artist, it has also given him the tools to create. Xiyadie has funneled his frustrations into his folk craft, leading to a small but burgeoning following in the gay community in Beijing, where his artworks have been exhibited in the Beijing LGBT Center. Traditional symbols are inserted into the works, providing an ironic mirror to a fast-changing society. "I often cut butterflies because I hanker for freedom," Xiyadie says.
“Beijing-based Queer Comrades producer Stijn Deklerck believes Xiyadie's influence is crucial. "He is definitely a role model of expressing sexuality through ways that are very traditional, showing that there is an alternative to being silent or leading a life in secrecy," comments Deklerck. Xiyadie says that he does not produce works to help gay activism and does not do it for money.Like the illiterate women who in times gone by used paper-cuts to express their emotions and goals, Xiyadie sees his art as a voice in a world where he has none. "Art to me is a platform. I have stripped my soul until it is naked, layer by layer," he says. "At first I doubted if I was normal. I tried to change myself, but I couldn't. So I gave into nature. I hope to convey a message by my own experience that it takes all kinds. Why bother to force someone that likes red flowers to like white ones?"
Gay-Themed Chinese Paper-Cuts as an Expression of a Gay Man’s Double Life
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Like many gay men of his generation, Xiyadie, 48, married to appease parental pressure; failing to produce an heir is an unforgivable transgression of filial duty. As such, Xiyadie's works play powerfully on themes of guilt, entrapment and forbidden love. Above all, they tell a tale of being pulled by conflicting obligations. "Tradition [in my village] is no less frigid than the Siberian air," says Xiyadie, who chose his name because of the freezing winds which are said to blow down on Shaanxi from Siberia. "It is depressing to be gay in China---and even more horrifying in a village. It froze my wings, and I was unable to fly." [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Los Angeles Times, May 13, 2012]
“One piece is typical. From a distance it appears to be true to Xiyadie's folk-art roots. The intricate paper-cut shows a moon shining down on a rural farmhouse. Two doves (tokens of peace) sit entwined in the gable and inside a woman with long plaited hair holds her child on a bed. It is a cozy, quaint setting. But something is amiss. Just outside the door a man performs oral sex on another. Look closer and it becomes apparent that the man has two faces. One face gazes at his male lover; the second face looks back toward his wife.
“It's a bittersweet situation," explains the soft-spoken Xiyadie, sitting outside his basic bedsit in Songzhuang, a hip artists' community in Beijing's suburbs. "There is a Chinese saying: You have food in your bowl and you want more from the pan. Sometimes I ask myself, I already have a wife, why do I have a boyfriend? It's a picture about greed." Other paper-cuts depict similar scenarios, many set among the everyday charms of the countryside. In one a teenage boy enjoys an encounter with a train conductor (Xiyadie's real former lover). In a series named "Door," the ornate wooden Chinese double doors symbolize both restraint and opportunity.
‘such settings are fraught with memories. "Coming out in my village has never crossed my mind, I wouldn't dare. People would think I am a criminal," he says. Asked if he's told his wife, he nods. "I confided with my wife about the truth. She wept, then she accepted it." His 21-year-old daughter and 23-year-old-son, who is severely disabled and cannot eat, drink or walk without aid, remain unaware.
“The artist's double life---on the one hand, as an active tongzhi ("comrade," slang for "gay"); on the other a filial son, husband and father---also plays out in the very art he can show.
Image Sources: Wikipedia
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated July 2015