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China’s gay community: Despite promising steps, the road ahead remains uncertain

By 27 June 2009 2 Comments
Photo by Liang Shi

Shanghai pride: Eddy's bar provides a welcoming environment | Photo by Liang Shi

When Professor Gao Yanming began teaching at Fudan University’s School of Public Health 10 years ago, the idea of teaching a course with the word “homosexual” in the title was unthinkable. Today, however, Gao teaches “Homosexual Health and Social Science”– the first gay-related course to be offered at a Chinese university.

The reason for this dramatic turnaround is difficult to pinpoint, but people familiar with gay and lesbian issues in China – gay and straight, locals and foreigners – voice the opinion that the West’s increasing openness about LGBT people and culture has had an impact.

“You can’t deny that Western culture, which is always pushing the bar, has something to do with it,” said Chris Xu, a gay Shanghai man. “I doubt being gay in China would be any more accepted if America [had] made no progress for tolerance in the past couple decades.”

Ironically, homosexuality in China is celebrated in the country’s ancient art and literature, and research by scholar Pan Guangdan has even indicated that nearly every emperor of the Han dynasty may have had at least one male sexual partner, including the first emperor, Gaozu, who reigned from approximately 256 to 196 BC. Under China’s communist rule, however, homosexuality has been long prohibited and was listed as a mental disorder until 2001 – forcing the gay community to meet secretly in parks, subway stations, and bathhouses for interaction.

The acceptance of homosexuality in China has advanced significantly since then, as is evident in Gao’s gay health course and the exclusively gay nighclubs and bars that have been springing up in the nation’s cities in recent years. ShanghaiPRIDE, China’s first GLBT festival, is another recent example of this progress for the mainland’s estimated 30 to 40 million homosexuals. Organized by a small group of Americans and Chinese, the festival was held June 7 to 14.

But despite gay culture becoming more acceptable in big cities like Shanghai, among the most liberal in China, members of the city’s queer population maintain that gay equality still faces an uncertain future.

“Being gay is viewed as a hobby here,” said Wu Jiali, a gay man temporarily working in Shanghai. “There are still expectations to be married and have a child, and if you don’t fulfill that, you are a failure. It still happens in the U.S., but there, being gay or lesbian is more of a lifestyle choice. It’s easier to be who you are.”

Seated next to his Western boyfriend at Eddy’s, Shanghai’s oldest gay bar on Huaihai Road, Wu talked about having to court a girlfriend  for three years to please his family, demonstrating how Chinese LGBT people are more reluctant to admit their sexual orientation.

“It seems gays and lesbians should feel more free in China, where Christianity does not play as big a role as it does in the west,” said Gao, who participated in a panel on China’s gay revolution at ShanghaiPRIDE. “There is some truth to that, yet there are many more difficulties in bringing a pride festival to China.”

ShanghaiPRIDE’s organizers, on the other hand, said that Shanghai police warned clubs and bars against participating in the festival, forcing two events to be canceled and other events to be switched to alternate venues. There were only film screenings, workshops, art exhibitions and charity events held in private spaces. There was no parade.

“This festival was pretty low-key, but as soon as an LGBT gathering gets too public, it gets blocked in some way,” said Sophia Liang, a bisexual festival attendee from Shaanxi province.

Gao’s Homosexual Health and Social Science class, on the other hand, is open to the public and provides gay men and women with another opportunity to meet outside of private establishments and talk about AIDS prevention, discrimination, and other issues facing their community.

Inspired by the lack of educational attention given to AIDS and general gay health in China, Gao pitched the idea of starting a class focusing on those issues, among others, that would serve as an elective for medical school students. Although the resistance faced from Fudan University was not as great as Gao expected, he did end up having to change the title of the course from “Homosexual Theory and Practice” to “Homosexual Health and Social Science”  before the class could be seriously considered by the university. He said the reason for the name change was “hard to say,”  but that the current title better captures the essence of the course anyway.

“ShanghaiPRIDE was a positive step, but it won’t make any lasting impact to the gay society of China outside of the big city,” said Gao. “This issue has a long way to go.”


  • Izzo said:

    great story!

  • Osvaldo Romoero said:

    Enlightning story. Gao’s view that Christianity is the driving force against gays and lesbians in the United States is perceptive and not far from the truth. Interestingly, in a communist regime where Christianity is not a factor, gays and lesbians face even harsher barriers such as ignorance and intolerance. I agree, “this issue has a long way to go” not only in China, but the rest of the world.

    Osvaldo Romero

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