Gay China

Gay China
May 22, 2009 By Susie Gordon ,

Next month heralds an event that will be incredibly meaningful to certain groups of people in Shanghai and across China, and is a milestone for communities worldwide. Whether you’re a tóngzhì [同志 | a gay man], a lālā [拉拉 | a lesbian], a liǎngxìng [两性 | bisexual], or simply want to support gay rights, you’ll want to be involved. On the 8th of June, Shanghai Pride begins - a week-long celebration of homosexuality that is the first of its kind on the Chinese mainland. It is run by ShanghaiLGBT, the city’s largest alternative lifestyle group, and features a range of events including sport, performance, wine tasting, club nights and exhibitions.

While Gay Pride has been a part of life in the West since the Stonewall Riots of the 1960s, it is a fairly new concept in Asia; Hong Kong had its first Pride event just last year. Since Shanghai is China’s most forward-looking city, it’s no surprise that the country’s first Pride will take place here. Gay, bisexual, and transgendered people in Shanghai are well catered for, with a close-knit community, and several LGBT nights happening during the week at gay-friendly venues like Frangipani, The Studio, and D2. However, life isn’t always plain sailing for those who prefer their own gender.

Photo: shanghaiPRIDE

You could say that it’s never easy being gay, as prejudices exist in every society to varying degrees. Even in the most open-minded countries and cities, homosexuals still come under fire from traditionalism, religion, and general bigotry. But in China, homosexuality has long been frowned upon. According to historical evidence in literature, the homosexual act itself is not a sin. Moreover, it is the fact that gay coupling didn’t sire children that was the problem. One of the principles of Daoism and Confucianism is that a true and worthy man must continue his family line. This meant that homosexual couplings were permitted among men, as long as each member of the partnership bore children in his heterosexual life. Effeminacy was tolerated too, as in Daoist beliefs, a man is made up of both the masculine yang (陽) and yin (陰) in differing ratios. In Daoism, there are actually several gods who seem to embody homosexuality. The mountain spirit shānshén (山神) and local god tǔdìgōng (土地公), who are found in every Daoist town, live together as a seemingly gay couple.

In historical literature, homosexuality has made many appearances. In one of China’s most famous works, The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, there are homosexual characters. Some ancient poetry was narrated from a female viewpoint and spoke of love for other women, like the works of Ancient Greek poet Sappho. There also seems to have been explicit erotic literature. Most of this has been destroyed, but some manuscripts have survived censorship. They include a series of erotic short stories, one of which tells the story of a male professor pursuing a teenage schoolboy, and a soldier who is seduced by his best friend. Twentieth century literature hasn’t just been limited to heterosexual themes either. Controversial feminist writer Ding Ling writes about female sexuality in her book Miss Sophia's Diary [莎菲女士的日記 | Shāfēi Nǚshì de Rìjì]. Contemporary writer Huang Biyun’s story She's a Young Woman and So Am I [她是女士我也是女士 | Tā Shì Nǚshì, Wǒ Yě Shì Nǚshì] is written from a lesbian viewpoint.

On the surface of modern China, homosexuality is tolerated. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1997 and homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic Criteria of Mental Disorders in 2001. These were important steps forward. A survey in 2000 found that nearly half of 10,792 people were in favour of homosexuality, while only 30.9% actively disapproved. However, there are currently no laws in place to forbid discrimination, and there is little promotion of gay events.

Sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe is instrumental in researching and promoting homosexuality and gay rights in China. She conducted a survey last year which showed that 91% of people questions agreed that homosexuals should have equal employment rights. Over 80% believed that heterosexuals and homosexuals were "equal individuals". However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for the government, which has solidly refused to pass a bill permitting gay marriage. Li Yinhe has brought the issue to the National People’s Congress almost every year since 2000, to no avail.



Drag in Henan, Photo: kafka4prez

It also seems that the police and justice system are unsympathetic to homosexuals. In 1999, a Beijing court stated that homosexuality was "abnormal and unacceptable to the Chinese public". There is an unwillingness, too, to decide upon exactly how many gay people there are in China. Some figures suggest 30 million, while others claim that there are only 30,000.
Luckily, the internet has made it easier for gay people in China to meet like-minded folk, talk about their sexuality and air their issues. But this isn’t the case outside of the big cities and larger towns; sadly, in many rural areas, being gay is still thought of as a disability.

It will be interesting to see how successful Shanghai Pride turns out be. There is the danger that it will cater only to the expat gay community, meaning that its value to China in general is less. However, the fact that such an event is going ahead is a real step towards equality.

For details of Shanghai Pride, visit

Gay Glossary
Gay man [同志 | tóngzhì]
Lesbian [拉拉 | lālā]
Bisexual [两性 | liǎngxìng]


Related Links

Valentine’s Day Gay Marriage Ceremony
Sharp increase of little homosexuals in Pearl River Delta
Shanghai: Embracing Alternate Lifestyles and the LGBT Community

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