Tiptoeing Out of the Closet: The History and Future of LGBT Rights in China

Chinese culture has grown more tolerant of homosexuality. But official recognition remains elusive.
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People sit by a window of a bar, where celebrations for mainland China's first Gay Pride week is held, in Shanghai in 2009. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Recent progress toward equal treatment of same-sex couples in the U.S. has sparked a wave of in-depth reporting on the fate of China's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Both domestic and international coverage focused on the increase in opportunities for LGBT activist groups to make their voices heard. The ability to openly discuss LGBT issues in online chat rooms and on social media is increasingly matched by positive attention in traditional, even state-run, media.

Take for example the title of this piece that appeared on the website of state news agency Xinhua on August 13, the day of China's Qixi Festival, or its lunar Valentine's day: "More same-sex couples openly celebrate Chinese Valentine's together." Or its report on a recent meeting of the Chinese chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a worldwide organization that aims to promote dialogue by bridging the gaps between LGBTs, their families, and wider society.

But recent coverage also points to the limits of LGBT advocacy in China. Despite ten years of citizen petitions for same-sex marriage, the government has never responded with a public statement. Although recent developments suggest that the Chinese government policy on homosexuality -- usually summarized as "don't support, don't ban, don't promote " -- is being relaxed, in reality no official policy exists. In other words, harassment might be on the decline, but LGBT rights are still ignored on a political level.

In response, members of Chinese sexual and gender minorities often marry straight partners or engage in cooperative marriages (that is, "sham marriages" between a gay and a lesbian) to keep family members and employers at bay. These make-do solutions have given rise to new support structures, such as networks for tongqi, straight women married to gay men.

Despite these challenges, optimism dominates. The consensus: In recent years, social acceptance of gays and lesbians in China has clearly improved. But are they able to lead lives of their own choosing?

Despite ten years of citizen petitions for same-sex marriage, the government has never responded with a public statement.

Tea Leaf Nation recently spoke with a young Chinese scholar currently researching world-wide sexual orientation law at a Western European university to discuss the urgent challenges and opportunities surrounding LGBT rights in China. Because the topic remains sensitive in mainland China, she wished to remain anonymous for this article.

Can you give us a brief history of LGBT legislation in China?

China's landmarks are the 1997 decriminalization of 'hooliganism' -- which was widely assumed to include homosexuality, although the law was never explicit on this point -- and the 2001 decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental diseases. However, if you look at experience worldwide, the road to legal same-sex marriage often takes at least eight legislative steps. There has never been a public statement on homosexuality, and the annual petitions to the National People's Congress that renowned sociologist and activist Li Yinhe (@李银河) has submitted since 1993 have never been met by sufficient support of parliamentary representatives to pass the threshold of 30 votes for becoming a proposal.

If same-sex marriage would be legalized in China tomorrow, would there be rows of interested couples lining up to register? Maybe, but for most LGBTs, laws and regulations governing same-sex cohabitation or the protection of equal opportunity in the working place are much more urgent. Right now, China does not have any anti-discrimination laws in place, leaving a wide legislative gap.

Global patterns of the adoption of LGBT-related legislation show that social acceptance almost always precedes legal progress. Despite the recent progress made in media portrayal, [it's a fact that] family acceptance, working place discrimination, poor sexual education, and a complete lack of public figures who are openly gay are all major hurdles currently preventing activist efforts from succeeding.

Increased tolerance but no legal protection; lower levels of homophobia but no public role models. To what extent are these trends contradictory?

There is no contradiction. The spheres in which more activism is allowed and those in which power is exercised hardly overlap. As long as the larger power structure remains stable, LGBT activism is hardly a major threat.

Actually, it is still disturbingly clear: within mainstream society, you simply cannot come out. It would be the end of your career. Can you imagine a Communist Party member being openly gay? There is no way. It would simply be dismissed as '"indecent." Such argumentation would be widely accepted: one should not even try to change the value system of the Party on this subject.

At the very least this includes teachers, employees of state-owned enterprises, and of any kind of government institution. Hardly any of the advocates of LGBT rights within academia are (known to be) gay either. We know many government officials do visit nightly meet-ups, but during the day the façade of a stabile marriage is essential to their careers. Of course, there are exceptions. I have a lesbian friend who works for the government and got away with opening up to her (also female) boss. She even got time off to go visit her girlfriend. There are always exceptions to the rule, and luckily their numbers seem to be growing.

There are some cross-over figures with close ties to the authorities, such as Tsinghua scholar Zhang Beichuan. He focuses on AIDS-related issues, but his voice is very important for the entire movement.

As for homophobia more generally, it depends on where you are, but the relatively high tolerance levels that online polls reveal are much lower when homosexuality occurs in one's own family and conflicts with expectations for grandchildren or societal status.

A lot of it has to do with education as well. Taiwan passed a gender equity education act in 2004 prescribing "sexual orientation and gender temperament" to be incorporated in the entire curriculum, starting from preschool. In mainland China, during the few hours of sexual education in middle school, the word "sex" is hardly mentioned, let alone equal treatment of LGBTs. On the contrary, educational materials in which homosexuality is described in discriminatory terms still regularly appear. Legal improvements cannot be separated from the social environment.

What do you consider realistic priorities for improving the legal position of China's LGBTs and why is this change not taking place? 2001, when homosexuality was removed from the list of mental diseases, was a long time ago.

In China, there is a huge divide between what is happening in terms of academic research and activism and the official stance, which still tends to deny reality and considers many of the legal barriers LGBTs face as something alien to contemporary Chinese society. A standard response would be: "Very interesting research, but China does not have this problem." But we do: same-sex couples buy property together, want to be able to adopt a child, get into legal conflicts, become ill, have inheritance issues to sort out, and so on. It is just that, unlike here in Europe, there is no legal framework for these situations.

A standard response would be: "Very interesting research, but China does not have this problem."

The framework we do have is still skewed in favor of heterosexual couples, and within that, towards male rights. The 2011 Supreme Court interpretation of the Marriage Law, making it very difficult for women to receive their share of property in the case of divorce, is a good example of this. We need more evidence of the nature and scale of practical issues when we go lobby for legal change. I want to know how the current patriarchal influences and heteronormativity of our law affects LGBT individuals. Even among scholars, very few have the time and interest to see what is really happening on the ground, and what legal changes the people concerned want to see attained first.

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Tabitha Speelman is a graduate student in Chinese Studies at Leiden University.

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