BEIJING — Coming out as gay is tough almost the world over. In China, it can constitute a major tragedy.
When one man in northeast China told his parents he was gay, his father pulled a knife on him, according to Fan Popo, director of “The Chinese Closet: Being Gay in China.” One lesbian committed suicide after her parents locked her in the house, banning her from going outside, Fan told me last week.
These are extreme cases, but the pressure for Chinese homosexuals to conform is crippling. Thirty-five percent of 1,259 gay men surveyed by the sexologist Zhang Beichuan in 2008 said they had contemplated suicide. [pdf]
No official statistics exist, but Zhang estimates that the total homosexual population in China stands between 27 and 30 million, with 18 to 20 million gay men and 9 to 10 million gay women. Prejudice against them is widespread, both in the workplace and at home.
Gay groups were up in arms late last month over a free booklet called “Parents, Please Walk Your Children Through Puberty.” Published by the Hangzhou Institute for Educational Research and Northeast Normal University Press, it called homosexuality a “sexual deviance.”
According to China Daily, the booklet reads in part, “Because homosexuals are not accepted by prevailing social customs and moral standards, they tend to be anti-social and eccentric.” It also urges parents to keep their children away from such transgressions by providing a “good social environment.”
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that such sentiments would be prevalent in the countryside, home to around half of China’s 1.34 billion people, many with only rudimentary access to education. But this booklet was distributed in Hangzhou, one of China’s wealthiest cities.
That it was reflects the enduring view that homosexuality is an abnormal condition that can be changed with persuasion, sometimes even brute force. As such, for Chinese parents to admit that their child is gay is like admitting gross parental failure.
Wei Xiaogang, a board member of Beijing’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center and the founder of Queer Comrades, a nonprofit LGBT Webcast, says that his mother, who lives in a small town in China’s remote western Xinjiang Province, refuses to tell people about his work — for fear that it might make them gay.
In imperial China same-sex relationships were tolerated as a diversion, so long as practitioners abided by Confucian ethics to marry and produce an heir. Later, Mao Zedong led a campaign to stamp out homosexuality, which he called a psychological disorder and a form of hooliganism.
Things have improved since then, though not enough. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and declassified as a mental illness (only) in 2001. Today, the Communist Party mostly stays out of citizens’ private lives (the occasional booklet notwithstanding). It frowns on most large-scale gatherings, including those advocating gay rights; police cancelled the inaugural Mr. Gay China pageant in 2010. But gay bars and gay groups have proliferated in cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing. And the younger urban generation is more accepting of homosexuality than its parents were.
No doubt, the Internet has provided an unprecedented tool for gays to seek out each other or rally together. Outcry online — and an open letter from 18 parents of gay children — over the Hangzhou booklet has forced its editor to apologize. The second edition, due out next month, is expected to cut offending passages.
Conceptions about family die hard, though, and “lots of people in China take a ‘not in my back yard’ attitude to homosexuality,” Zhang explained last week. Confucian ethics dictate that sons and daughters must produce children — an obligation that has only been exacerbated by the one-child policy.
As a result, over 70 percent of gay men in China marry, according to Zhang estimates. This has created the phenomenon of “homowives”: straight women who unwittingly marry gay men and then find themselves stuck in loveless, stunted relationships. More resourcefully perhaps, gay men and gay women in China sometimes marry each other. Under the cover of a formal union, they have open marriages, allowing each party to conduct his and her gay relationship on the side.
Ultimately, changes in attitudes about homosexuality in China will come through a grassroots shift in expectations about what constitutes a complete family unit. But this is unlikely to happen as long as the one-child policy — which stacks pressure on children to carry on the family line regardless of their sexual orientation — remains in place.
Photograph: Director and gay rights activist Fan Popo. Credit: Dane Zhao