Lala: Intercultural Lesbian Relationships in China

Lala: Intercultural Lesbian Relationships in China
Sep 24, 2014 By Susan Martin ,

Being in a relationship, and committing to somebody else, is hard enough when you are on completely the same page culturally, and when the society you are living in is fully accepting of your relationship. However, China’s intercultural lala, or lesbian, relationships have even more irrepressible external factors adding to existing relationship stress.

Lesbian relationships in China
Photo: Satish Krishnamurthy

Homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1997 in China, and taken off the list of mental disorders in 2001. Although this is no place for a thorough analysis of queer culture, Chinese or otherwise, I asked a few of my lala friends who are in intercultural relationships about how their experiences dating someone from a another culture  differed from heterosexual intercultural relationships, or lesbian relationships with someone from the same culture.

Coming out and family pressures

Coming out to parents and family can be a daunting task for everybody – regardless of whether you are Western or from China, where there is a much more visible stigma attached to homosexuality. In fact, a lot of gay Chinese people will decide to partake in Xinghun, or a ‘marriage of convenience’; it is seen by many people as a way of alleviating societal and familial pressures and satisfying most parties involved by viewing marriage as a rational transaction.

In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be this pressure to marry, and to save face. But how does this pressure affect intercultural relationships? Rebecca [Editor’s note: in order to protect those who have been interviewed, names have been changed] a Canadian woman living in China, found that both her and her Chinese girlfriend, Christine, faced similar pressure to come out and that it actually made them stronger: “Christine was more “out” than me and helped give me the support and strength I needed to face this challenge. Now, after a summer trip to Canada and an introduction of her as my girlfriend, my family is truly happy that I have found someone that makes my life complete. I will do the same for her when it comes to informing her family, and I am aware that this will require more time and care for Chinese parents.”

In their case, cultural norms and expectations did not cause a hurdle as much as a factor allowing for more understanding toward each other. Rebecca explains, “Dating someone from another culture heightened my awareness and helped me be more understanding, as there are often factors I did not consider.”

However, Karen, a gay woman from America, writes that the degree of being out has played a role in her relationship with Ann, her girlfriend from China’s Henan Province.

Although both are out to their parents, and Karen actually says that “Ann’s family is more accepting of her marrying a woman than my own family is”, Ann is not out to all of her friends: “When I walk around with Ann and her friends, she usually introduces me as a foreign friend, instead of her girlfriend. This has made me feel sad and estranged, though I completely understand why she has to be cautious, to protect her job, professional relationships, and relationships with her friends’ parents”.

Love, marriage and having children

Even in the case of marriage, Hannah did not find that differences in opinion were a barrier to a successful relationship: “Of course, some issues like marriage might be new concepts and may take more time for Chinese to come to terms with but perhaps dating a foreigner can make this a reality”. At this point in time, same-sex marriage is clearly not an option in China, and it doesn’t look like it will be an option in the near future, either.

Others feel that there are barriers, but none that compromise and understanding cannot surpass. For example, Karen says that “If I were in a relationship with another American, or even a Westerner, it wouldn’t matter whose baby the infant was genetically, but since ‘carrying on the family line (Chuanzong Jiedai)’ is so important to Ann’s family, we’re thinking of genetically having her kids instead of mine.”

But there are also differences in expectations of love, as several interviewees say that in China the concept of ‘love’, does not seem to have the same fairy-tale connotations that it carries in the West, and this can impact a relationship.

Christine says: “Love seems more about balancing personal feelings with societal and family expectations, but it would be hard to find a Westerner that would put their individual feelings aside and marry someone based solely on the wishes of their parents or friends.” Differences like this may be difficult for Westerners to understand fully, but are a real struggle for their Chinese other halves.

Gender roles

A bigger point of contention within relationships may stem from gender roles within the relationship, as there are quite strict divides in the Chinese lala scene. Most Chinese lala’s will adhere to a label: ‘P’, ‘T’, or ‘H’. The P’s ( Princesses) are the pretty girls with the long hair, make-up and jewelry; the T’s (Tomboys) are those who dress in a more ‘masculine’ way, wear their hair short and sometimes even wear sports bras to hide their breasts. They will also generally take on a more dominant role during intercourse. The H’s seem to be stuck in between and take on whichever role that is ‘needed’ by their partner.

Alice, a Russian woman living in Beijing, told me that her experience dating a Chinese girl was difficult because of the ‘P’ and ‘T’ division, and that it seemed more like a ‘straight’ relationship than a gay relationship, as a ‘T’ has to be with a ‘P’, and vice versa. The relationships she describes seem to have fallen apart as the demands of these gender roles were too high. Karen agrees, as she says that “many Chinese lalas heterosexualize their relationship by conforming to the ’P’/’T’ gender structure roles”.

This is something that I have personally observed too – In fact, it has been a problem for many Western lesbians living in China, as those who are not clearly ‘P’ or ‘T’ (this being most people) have their sexuality questioned on a regular basis, sometimes following an intense ‘study’ of one’s clothes, make-up and general physique.

At Chinese gay networking events, I have been asked why I have long hair but was not wearing a dress, or why I have long hair but am wearing it in a ponytail; I’ve even been told that I seem too opinionated to conform to the ‘P’ label that they themselves have bestowed upon me. To me, any relationship facing this kind of critical scrutiny is already off to a rocky start.  

However, this issue may be perpetuated by a society that is not accepting of gay couples. Some of my Chinese friends have told me that by adhering to this huge gender division on the outside, protects them from staring and disapproval when out in public.


It’s important to keep in mind that each individual case is different, and that this piece does not aim to generalize, but rather give an overview of some of the issues facing intercultural lala couples. Although every relationship faces its challenges, societal pressures and stigma on top of pre-existing cultural differences all add to the extra challenges facing China’s lesbian community.

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Keywords: lesbian relationships in China lesbian community in China lala


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Simple,lesbians are sometimes weird. Just as someone above stated,they prefer more of the masculune looking girl who looks and dresses as if she were a male person. For whatever reasons i find that strange since all lesbians dislike men so why not go for the girlish or more female looking person? Well i'll leave it at that and i don't need any foolish replies here.

Sep 30, 2014 17:39 Report Abuse



Where did you get this fact that all lesbians dislike men? You posted a foolish reply.

Oct 08, 2014 08:47 Report Abuse



who wont like this

Oct 11, 2014 04:38 Report Abuse



Can I watch?

Sep 28, 2014 07:07 Report Abuse



fuck off them

Sep 27, 2014 17:05 Report Abuse



And what exactly is your point?

Sep 27, 2014 21:42 Report Abuse



Haha what are you saying?

Sep 28, 2014 17:53 Report Abuse




Sep 29, 2014 00:16 Report Abuse



Care to explain?

Sep 29, 2014 09:55 Report Abuse



Some lesbians are confusing to me. Of course, it doesn't have to make sense to me because I'm not a lesbian. I just find some confusing. For example, gay men are not attracted to women, they might date a guy who is a bit or very "lady like", but he would still have to look like a man for the gay guy to be attracted to him. Some lesbians claim to not be attracted to men, yet choose to date the most manly looking woman they can find. That's the confusing part for me. I am attracted to women, so if a woman looked like a man, I wouldn't be attracted to her. Same goes for Gay men, they like men, so if a man looked like a woman, they wouldn't be attracted to that man. I guess you have to be a lesbian to understand why woman who claim to like other woman choose to date woman that look more like a man than a woman. To each his or her own, I just don't get it.

Sep 26, 2014 09:34 Report Abuse



It's OK you don't have to get it, as long as you aren't one of those people who says 'I don't get lesbians, therefore they must be lying/ secretly straight'.

Sep 28, 2014 17:51 Report Abuse



Like I said, to each his or here own. What anyone wants to do is their own private business. I'm not judging anyone. I'm just asking a question.If someone claims not to be attracted to men, why date a woman that looks and acts like a man? I'm sure you can understand how that might confuse people. If a woman isn't attracted to men, she wouldn't date a woman that looks and acts like a man, she would date a woman that looks and acts like a woman. For example, if a gay guy put on make up fake boobs and a dress, the other gay guys would not be attracted to him, because they are not attracted to women. Yet when a woman tries to hide her breast, cuts her hair like a man, dresses like a man and acts like a man, other women who claim to also be lesbians find them attractive. Do you understand the confusion? Can any lesbians out there explain this?

Sep 28, 2014 23:18 Report Abuse



Not everyone's idea of feminine and masculine are so clearly defined; just because they look like men doesn't make them actual men- Lesbians aren't attracted to women because they wear dresses and have long hair and display 'feminine' traits- it's because they are biologically inclined that way. It's not the look, the clothes and the hair they are naturally attracted to. These are just preferences. If it was, then lesbians would be attracted to super effeminate gay men and gay men would be attracted to butch women. Not everyone believes that short hair, shirts and trousers = men, long hair, dresses and make up = woman. It's more nuanced than that.

Sep 29, 2014 10:30 Report Abuse



I agree humbug - good response. There is no other explanation than that...

Sep 29, 2014 10:32 Report Abuse



Thanks for clearing that up. The only reason I ask is because I have made the mistake of thinking someones "girlfriend" is a man many times. I have many guy male friends and when they introduce me to their boyfriends there is no mistaking that they are men, yet many times when I see two lesbians together, one looks exactly like a man. Literally, the only way to tell she is a woman would be to check in her pants. Which obviously I can't do. Since people in China usually have a problem with saying "he" or "she" I thought they had made a grammar mistake, when actually it was my mistake. Its embarrassing and I feel like crap when I make that mistake. One more question. If someone is trying so hard to look like a man and someone mistakes them for a man, wouldn't that be a compliment? For example, if I dress as a policeman and someone thinks I'm a policeman, why would I get upset?

Sep 29, 2014 10:48 Report Abuse



Haha I have no idea about that I'm afraid.

Sep 29, 2014 13:24 Report Abuse



I recently watched an hbo show called "real sex" in which a group of lesbians had a party called "strut your strap on". Got even more confused. The show had extremely manly woman strapping on penises and having sex with each other. Even giving the fake penises bj's! So if someone dates a woman with a penis that looks exactly like a man but claims not to like men, am I confused or is she? I get what you said about clothes and hair, but this is totally different. It's woman that look more like men than many men, plus a penis. Yet they don't like men? What's the difference from these women and actual men? The only difference I can tell is that they have the option of removing their penises. Other than that, it's the exact same thing.

Oct 01, 2014 20:04 Report Abuse



Excellent article! It's so difficult to hear gay people's side of the story because it's so covered up here.

Sep 24, 2014 17:46 Report Abuse



interesting ! i like that......

Sep 24, 2014 16:49 Report Abuse