China’s changing social fabric

China’s tumultuous past with LGBT+ rights is more complex than you think

A woman wearing a red hanfu (traditional Chinese robes) slings a rainbow flag around her shoulder. Artwork by Annie Zhang

A Chinese translation this article appears here.

An experience I will never forget in my life is the first time I attended the Sydney Mardi Gras. It was in 2016, and I was shocked when I saw a fabulous sea of rainbow spectrums, filled with people wearing shiny, colourful costumes — some dancing on the floats, and others marching to loud music. Around them, thousands of people on the street shouted and jumped for joy. I was impressed and enticed, not only by the festive atmosphere of the parade, but also by the openness towards queerness in Australia. Being from China, this was something I had never seen before.

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In China, homosexuality was illegal until 1997, and was only declassified as a mental disorder in 2001. However, many in China, especially older generations, still consider queerness an illness that requires a cure. Before 1997, people caught engaging in homosexual acts could be prosecuted under the vague crime of “hooliganism”. This attitude can be seen in a famous 1996 Chinese movie called East Palace, West Palace, which depicts the story of a gay man caught at a Beijing public bathroom, who is consequently detained and beaten. But, even up until now, 22 years after LGBT+ sex was decriminalised, social attitudes towards queerness still remain generally intolerant.

In 2017, Australia legalised same-sex marriage, but simultaneously, the Chinese government banned public discussions around LGBT+ problems and experiences online. In 2018, Sina Weibo — one of China’s largest social media sites — stated that the platform would remove comics and videos “with pornographic implications, promoting bloody violence, or related to homosexuality” in order to “create a positive and harmonious community environment” and “comply with the country’s cybersecurity laws.” The decision to ban LGBT+ related content was only reversed after an overwhelming number of complaints flooded online.

Chinese censorship bodies have released new regulations for content that “exaggerates the dark side of society” and now deem content that features queerness, extramarital affairs, one night stands and underage relationships as illegal to be shown across screens. Consequently, depictions of LGBT+ people on television, social media and other mediums has also been banned as part of a cultural crackdown on “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content”. The government’s decision has since become one of the most talked about topics on social media, and sparked an enormous amount of backlash from young people.

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Something that is little known is that the history of same-sex love in China has not always been one of intolerance.

Same-sex love has been documented since ancient times, and research by scholars suggests that it was thoroughly normalised in society prior to Western influence from the 1840s onwards. Even several Chinese emperors are speculated to have had same-sex relationships with others. According to the Han Dynasty historian, Ban Gu (AD32-92), Emperor Ai of Han expressed his sexual orientation by stating, “By nature, he [I] did not care for women.” A famous love story between him and his male lover Dongxian — a court official — has become emblematic of queer relationships in China today.

The story tells of how Dongxian fell asleep on top of Ai’s sleeves after the two were resting in the same bed. Rather than waking Dongxian, Ai carefully cut off his sleeves to get out of bed the next morning. Owing to the fame of the story, Duànxiù, also known as “the cut sleeve” became a euphemism for same-sex relationships in China, and has featured prominently in Classical Chinese literature.

However, fast forward to almost two millennia later, queerness became largely invisible during the Mao era because it was viewed as both an illness and a crime. However, recently, with the extensive discussion of LGBT+ issues and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in numerous countries around the world, discussion on this topic has re-emerged in China. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Chinese government broke their silence on the treatment of LGBT+ individuals. The government recently accepted the United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review’s recommendations regarding LGBT+ rights that demand the protection of the rights of China’s LGBT+ population. China accepted all five recommendations regarding LGBT+ rights made by the UN’s Human Rights Council, and claimed that they had already been implemented. Whether these official actions have materially bettered the lives of LGBT+ individuals in China remains to be seen.

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Although the conversation surrounding queerness in China is increasingly becoming more open and the government’s attitude is becoming positive, a lot of LGBT+ people nevertheless refrain from revealing their sexual orientation to wider society.

Queer people in China usually face enormous social pressure to start their own family and begin producing children. With the absence of a free press and the pervasive presence of a political regime that is cautiously neutral at best and discriminatory at worst, many LGBT+ Chinese choose to hide their sexual orientation with fake heterosexual marriages, also known as “cooperative marriages”. There are two types of cooperative marriages. One is a marriage between a gay man and a lesbian, but under the guise that both are heterosexual. The other case is where a gay man marries a straight woman who is unaware of his sexual orientation. This situation is more common and is said to make up around 80 per cent of queer relationships. Such marriages often cause irreparable harm to both sides, with the relationship often tragically dissolving, and accompanying risks of suicide and self-harm are also present.

Xi Chen, a Chinese student at the University of Sydney studying Cultural Studies, commented that fake marriage allows for little happiness to either party within the marriage, and does nothing but temporarily ease parental anxiety about their child being “abnormal.” She also offered a bleak view on the reality of many Chinese LGBT+ individuals, saying that “people keep doing this is because the situation is so bad, if they don’t fake-marry, there’s no other way to endure life.” There is a common perception in Western society that the main challenge of being an LGBT+ individual in China is the Chinese government’s erratic stance towards the LGBT+ community. However, in reality, it has less to do with our government’s stance and more to do with familial pressures.

David*, a Chinese international student at USyd, described the pressure of coming out, saying, “ I only tell my sexual orientation to a few of my best friends. I feel so much pressure because I’m gay and because I’m concerned about my future. Straight people get married and have kids, while I am not able to.” Chen said that although China is gradually starting to accept and understand queerness, traditional Confucian family values to marry had have children still represent a major obstacle for LGBT+ people.

“I see this tendency as a somewhat collective parental attempt to try and fix queerness — parents hope marriage and having kids (and heterosexual sex, that goes without saying) will make their homosexual children normal. This hope, however, won’t come true, because queerness is not pathological and does not need fixing.”

“Sadly, I also know some parents who know their child’s sexuality deep down, but will still force their children to marry, because their children’s happiness seems insignificant before the need to continue the family lineage.”

While the Chinese are normalised to the idea of fake marriages, it is still shocking that such a large proportion of LGBT+ Chinese youth choose to fake-marry just to evade familial and societal fears of ill treatment and isolation. LGBT+ individuals are still in a vulnerable position mainly because their families refuse to understand them and constantly try to “correct” their sexual orientation. If families and society could just listen more to their children’s opinions and respect their sexual orientations, they would be able to lead better, happier and more fulfilling lives.

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