Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court made two rulings in favor of marriage equality, striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and refusing to consider an argument in favor of California's Proposition 8. Once considered an impossible dream, gay marriage has sustained tremendous momentum across the United States, and prominent voices now speculate that same-sex marriage will be legal in every state in the country within just five years.
In terms of legal recognition of same-sex rights, China remains far behind the United States. However, for a country that decriminalized homosexuality as recently as 1997, China too has made significant strides in tolerance and acceptance.
Richard Burger, who runs the popular China blog The Peking Duck, is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, a book that focuses on China's complicated relationship with sexuality. In this interview, Burger discusses the origins of homophobia in China, and why he feels optimistic that gay marriage may, someday, become law.
Is there any sort of movement toward gay marriage in China?
There's actually some public awareness of gay marriage in China. In 2009, the China Daily ran a cover photo of two gay men getting married (symbolically -- gay marriage isn't legal in China) in Tiananmen Square. This actually started a trend where gays and lesbians "married" each other in public in cities throughout the country, and in general media coverage of these events has been positive.
But generally, China remains a difficult place to be gay. Gay people are stigmatized, and don't come out to their parents unless the parents are very liberal, and there are few openly gay people outside of China's cities. I do see, though, a gradual shift occurring, as younger Chinese people are more tolerant of homosexuality.
As for marriage, the sexologist Li Yinhe has attracted a lot of attention for saying gay marriage should be legalized in China where, she points out, there are likely at least 40 million gay people. Her outspoken advocacy of gay marriage has gotten her into hot water with authorities though. Two years ago, she put up a famous blog post (translated here by ChinaGeeks) announcing that politicians told her to shut up, that they didn't want to hear about gay marriage, and to let her know that this topic is taboo. So with this in mind, I think it'll take several generations before something like gay marriage will be put into action.
What are the origins of homophobia in China?
Gay people in China began to be stigmatized during the Qing Dynasty. One reason was the presence of Christian missionaries in China, who imported the Western notion that homosexuality was a sin and worth criminalizing. Secondly, after China lost the Opium Wars to Britain, the country began to wonder how these foreigners could defeat them so easily, and a result began to study Western ideas more carefully -- including texts that described homosexuality as a deviant behavior.
Under Mao Zedong, gay men were frequently arrested for cavorting with partners in public parks, and they'd be publicly shamed and imprisoned. The psychology of homosexuality being a sickness and a crime went on for the entire duration of Mao's tenure and most of Deng Xiaoping's time in office, too. It just isn't something China can shake that easily.
To what degree is homophobia in China influenced by cultural factors?
Well, one reason I'm skeptical of the cultural argument is that in other places with large ethnic Chinese populations, like Singapore and Taiwan, there's far more tolerance of homosexuality. In fact, when I lived in Taiwan several years ago I witnessed a gay pride parade. Basically, in places like Singapore and Taiwan people are more willing to come out of the closet than in China. There are still phobias about homosexuality in those places, of course, but it's just a matter of degree.
Is there much difference between tolerance of homosexuality in China and that of, say, the United States?
The two cases are pretty similar. In China, you have groups of activists now who are putting themselves at risk by speaking out about gay rights, and that is something that we saw in the late 1960s and 1970s here in the United States. That was also a period when the U.S. as a whole began liberalizing in many ways: the country legalized pornography, and Broadway musicals like Hair featured full nudity on stage. Gay rights was part of a whole mosaic of change and liberalization in the country as a whole, and I can see something similar happening in China.
How will gay rights evolve in China? Where do they go from here?
I'm very optimistic about the future of gay rights in China. When I was researching my book I spoke to many Chinese people, both gay and straight, and I feel like those Chinese who are living in the cities generally have no problem with homosexuality. Outside of the cities it's a different story, and as a result millions of gay people from the countryside are migrating to urban areas in order to escape the eye of their family and be the person they are. But there's been a lot of progress already; even 15 years ago, the idea that there would be gay bars in China was unimaginable, and now they're fairly easy to find in major cities. I think we're witnessing a generational shift in China toward more liberalism and tolerance.