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.

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?

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.

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.

When you do engage in in-depth fieldwork, it turns out there is a big gap between those who participate in the activities of LGBT organizations, who are often aware of and sympathetic towards international debates on gay rights, and other gays and lesbians, simply living in other parts of Chinese society. Wei Wei (@华东师大魏伟) , a scholar who does engage in in-depth fieldwork, talked to 'non-active' gay men and found that, even when they have same-sex partners, many consider marriage as something that could and should only be between men and women. They have internalized the status quo. Similarly, many lesbian activists do not see marriage as an ideal. What is most urgent is a legal basis for equal treatment.

Despite the lack of legal progress, the official position towards LGBT issues has seemingly relaxed; for example, there's state involvement in AIDS prevention and neutral, even positive media portrayal of same-sex relations in state media. How does this fit?

The state provides more space, but active support is still very limited. Things took a turn about ten years ago when the leadership realized that denying the existence of an AIDS epidemic was counterproductive. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that concern themselves with AIDS prevention, even when they are unregistered and have a strong gay identity, now get state funding and even get to meet [Chinese premier] Li Keqiang every now and then. These organizations, such as Aibai and Aizhi, do great work, but among LGBT organizations they are also considered the "(male-dominated) gay orthodoxy." Their funding limits what they can do, making them focus on safe-sex campaigns. They even start to sound like the government, speaking in "scientific" and health-related terms. For example, they write position papers on the importance of "the scientific foundation of LGBT education" and tell their volunteers to adopt this language.

This fits with a trend in which the LGBT community's interactions with government are still mostly with health departments, which encourages thinking of LGBT issues in biological terms, rather than as a civil rights issue. The approach can be very persuasive and effective -- for example in informing audiences who are altogether unfamiliar with homosexuality -- but it sometimes closes the door to issues that might be of more interest to lesbian or transgender communities, which tend to be more critical of the government as well.

Other NGOs often depend on financial support from foreign embassies. It is great when embassies host awareness events or cultural events that might otherwise have met government interference, such as when the Netherlands hosted an event on transgender visibility on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. This year's Beijing Queer Film Festival had screenings in the Dutch and French embassies and in the Beijing American Center. It was the first time in 13 years the event took place without being forced to move or cancel events. However, here too, it means that they work within the limits of what interests their sponsors.

What role does the Internet play in organizing the LGBT community across geographical distances? For instance, is there a sense of a national LGBT movement?

Many LGBT NGOs are very visible online and active on social media like Weibo. Their websites have turned into invaluable information hubs, with free e-books featuring titles like "How to safely inject hormones" and active Q&A sections. They also discuss international LGBT news, movies, and so on. The Internet has been especially powerful in increasing the visibility of LGBTs, both in terms of bonding between gays and raising awareness more broadly. Before Weibo, there were only small groups, a few bars, and some magazines reaching small urban pockets. Now, no one needs to be isolated.

Lately, many are filming their own or other gays' stories and putting them online. NGOs like Queer Comrades and the Queer University program provide training in how to direct and produce a film, and the results are put on their websites and on Weibo. Sometimes people just tell their own story in front of a camera, [and] sometimes the films turn into elaborate projects, such as the film Brothers, in which lesbian director Yaoyao dives into the world of her (and my) transgender friend Tony. Brothers is a candid account of both Tony's psychological and practical struggles as he starts the process of a sex change.

These films are very powerful statements that fulfill multiple functions. They increase the exposure to LGBT issues among a wider audience, but they also force these individuals to articulate a clear narrative on a topic many have been silent on for most of their lives. LGBT training curricula, ranging from gender theory crash courses to media training, have greatly expanded in the last couple of years. [See the video section of the Queer Comrades website for a selection of these movies featuring English subtitles.]

Used even more broadly are the myriad of dating websites and discussion platforms, such as Feizan, which help people find a partner for a relationship. Some specialize in helping members team up to form a cooperative marriage. The homepage of ChinaGayLes.com, for instance, boasts over 20,300 successful cooperative matches made through their website to date.

Could you share a bit more about the position of transgender individuals in China?

The 'T' in LGBT is rapidly gaining in visibility in China, as the big organizations start to focus on this group as well. Transgenders face serious discrimination in finding employment. In ' Brothers,Tony shares his experience of having to use fake IDs if he wants to find work. And if someone undergoes a sex change after graduating from college, their educational records basically become useless.

However, in some ways being a transgender is more accepted in Chinese society than being gay. For example, there are Chinese celebrities that are openly transgender, such as Jin Xing (@金星). If they undergo a sex change and then engage in 'regular' heterosexual relationships, it seems like they are less threatening to the system than gays. By contrast, we do not have any openly gay celebrities. But there are always minorities within minorities: Tony first identified as a gay transgender, later he got medical testing that diagnosed him as "intersex," which has him rethinking his identity once again.

The discourse is slowly broadening to include queer, intersex and asexual communities. Bisexuality receives comparatively little attention. Although the issues there different sexual and gender minorities face differ greatly, it is good that we join forces where possible. LGBTQIA ... the acronym can't get long enough.

What is the origin of the most-frequently used terms for gays and lesbians in China: 'comrade' (同志) and 'lala' (拉拉)?

Yes. I like the term "comrade," which also gets used among members of the Communist Party. In early 20th century China, the term had a strong inclusive character emphasizing the common ground between its users, whether male or female. It was first used as a term for gays and lesbians in the Chinese title of a 1989 film festival in Hong Kong. Of course, its use among gays is ironic considering the marginalization of LGBTs within the Party. But it is mostly a very positive term that gays picked themselves, as opposed to earlier abusive terms like "gaylo."

"Lala" is the name of a lesbian protagonist in 1994 Taiwanese novel Notes of a Crocodile (鱷魚手記) by Qiu Miaojin. The term has been widely adopted among lesbians in mainland China as well. In addition, in Chinese we also frequently use the English terms "gays" and "les" (short for lesbians).

What is next for heightening acceptance of LGBTs in China? How do you see your own role in this process?

Sex education is key. Currently, too many mainland Chinese are still completely blank on the topic when they get to university. And the current trend of increased self-acceptance and self-confidence will hopefully continue and result in wider understanding.

Many gays prefer not to initiate a confrontation with their families. Their parents might actually know or suspect they are in a same-sex relationship, but as long as it remains unsaid, no social taboos are violated. So they bring home their partner to celebrate Chinese New Year, as "their best friend." You could call this a sort of tolerance as well. We sometimes joke: in China it is not about "coming out" but about "coming home." This does not mean people who chose to do this are not being true to themselves. It just means that there are many strategies to deal with family relations as a gay in China, and that coming out is only one of them.

Eventually, I want to move back to China and try to make a difference. I joined a local LGBT society here for a while, but it was only about dating. Whenever I brought up the issues we talk about in China, they were considered much too heavy. This reminded me of how much there still needs to be done. In China, people often ask: "Why spend your life on LGBT rights? China has so many problems. We don't even have proper rule of law." But the fact that China faces many challenges at once does not mean we should sit back -- we can make progress on all these issues simultaneously.

As for LGBT rights, small steps can make a big difference. Because of its big Christian population, Hong Kong is quite conservative on LGBT legislation. In 2009, however it included couples engaging in same-sex cohabitation in its Amendment of the Law Against Domestic Violence. This change has greatly improved legal counseling options for LGBTs in Hong Kong. And, by the way, to debunk the argument that that LGBT rights protection would not fit "Chinese culture": Taiwan has the most comprehensive same-sex anti-discrimination legislation of all of Asia. That's where we also need to go.

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.