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.