Hope on the Horizon for Gays in China

This is Part 5 of a series attempting to explore the mindset of young Chinese by focusing on themes found in essays written by Sichuan University students in a graduate writing course. Previous articles have addressed their attitudes toward the elderly, marriage, the wealth gap and America.

I want to end this series of essays on a hopeful note. On the surface, Chinese attitudes towards homosexuality may not seem the obvious place to do this. Although the religious rationale that exists in America for hostility towards homosexuality is not present in China, the societal pressure to continue the family line provides an equally strong cultural argument against tolerance towards the gay lifestyle. The one-child policy has only exacerbated this ideology, since a single gay offspring can potentially condemn an esteemed lineage to extinction.

So it came as an incredible surprise to me as a Peace Corps volunteer to discover that my students’ attitudes towards homosexuality veered wildly from the cultural consensus.

Films & Influence

Brokeback Mountain
Promo imagery for Brokeback Mountain

Every semester I would survey my classes on a variety of social issues in order to see how they compared to their American counterparts. For each of the four semesters that I taught, roughly three-quarters of my Chinese students agreed with the statement that gays should be allowed to marry or provided with rights equivalent to marriage. When I pushed my students for the rationale behind their beliefs, a strangely similar but oddly reassuring answer kept emerging: the American film Brokeback Mountain (or as they called it, Broken Back Mountain).

I love movies, and this response reinforced the power of the medium in my mind. This powerful love story (directed by Taiwanese-born Ang Lee) had convinced many of my students that society should find a way to allow people who love each other to find happiness, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Teaching graduate students at Sichuan University several years later, I put forth the issue of gay marriage as a possible paper topic and, not surprisingly, the half dozen students who took up the challenge all argued on behalf of equal rights in this area. But it was not only on homosexuality that students demonstrated an open mindset. Essays supported everything from group sex, to watching pornography at home, to ending the cultural obsession with female virginity before marriage.

Their outlook made my college students back in the States look incredibly conservative by comparison. Of course, since I taught in Utah and three-quarters of my students were Mormon, this is not as radical as it might sound.

Authorities Weigh In

Li Yinhe
Li Yinhe, sexologist

In these attitudes, they echoed many of the ideas of China’s most famous and perhaps only sexologist: Li Yinhe. Among other things, Li argues in support of the decriminalization of orgies and prostitution, the repeal of laws against adultery and the right of homosexuals to marry. She has gone so far as to introduce several resolutions on the last issue to the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference — a proposal that admittedly has as much chance as passing as does the one for a National Dalai Lama Day.

In any case, the papers did a thorough job of laying out persuasive arguments and rebutting the usual objections, doing both with invariably Chinese characteristics. So not only was the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights appealed to but also Article 33 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which “stipulates that ‘All citizens of the People’s Republic of China are equal before the law’ and that ‘the state respects and protects human rights’.”

Hence a “ban of same-sex marriage violates the constitutional principle of equality.”

Moreover the current situation with respect to gay marriage was seen as a source of human misery. Not only does denying someone the right to spend their life with the person they love deprive happiness to the 3% of the population that is gay.

In addition, since 90% of China’s estimated 20 million homosexuals marry someone of the opposite sex, “the spouses of homosexuals live with people who do not love them; consequently they suffer great pressure mentally and physically, and are not well respected.” If equality and human happiness were not enough of a rationale, it was pointed out that “same-sex marriage can help to relieve the stress of population in China without threatening the sustainable development of the population.” Finally, even the concern about ending the family line can be overcome through the process of adoption since “there is no shortage of orphans in China.”

Marriage & Tradition

Gay China art
A woman spies on a pair of male lovers

To those who argue that homosexual marriage goes against traditional Chinese values it was politely pointed out that “the current marriage system in China can be said to violate traditional values, “since neither monogamy nor a concern for women’s rights were part of traditional Chinese marriage.” Indeed, “if the traditional institution of marriage stayed the same without any change, there would still be child brides and polygamy in China, and people would marry someone they’ve never seen before, and women could have neither the right to apply for divorce nor an opportunity to remarry upon the death of their spouse.”

But just as “with the development of society and people’s idea of humanity, people in China gradually began to notice the rights of one disadvantaged group, women” so it is not only logical but inevitable that homosexuals, another disadvantaged group, will have their rights, including the right to marriage, ultimately recognized.

The reasoning is persuasive. Indeed, in something like a satori moment shortly after reading the papers I realized I can no longer include the topic of gay marriage on my list of possible essays since I require that there be a coherent argument on the other side of every issue we cover, and gay marriage no longer fits into this category (although, oddly, marriage itself does). I still recognize that the support of gay marriage remains a minority position in China. But if the papers are any indicator — and I believe that they are — a generational change, much as what has happened in the United States, is on the way.

22 thoughts on “Hope on the Horizon for Gays in China”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. I love these essays and it’s sad to see this final one. I hope you continue to contribute to CL in some way or another. I have seen examples of peoples’ open-mindedness toward homosexuality in China and it was always really refreshing. One of the things we can learn from this place I would say …

  3. Hi Peter. I really enjoy reading your articles. I believe that many of us will be sad if you stop writing. 🙁

    I believe that young generations in China already have an open-minded attitude towards gays. Only most of the old generations still have some bias. One of my very closed friends is gay. This never influences our friendship.

    • I’ve been told that Chengdu has one of the largest gay populations of any major city in China – do you know anything about this Tracy? If it is a more tolerant place than other cities in China, that is pretty cool.

      There used to be a lesbian bar next to The Hemp House called Queen Bee (I think?) that had a sign outside of it that said “No man allowed”. Aside from that place though I can’t remember many times when I saw groups of gay people, which is different from the US where you have entire gay districts of major cities (Dupont Circle in my city, DC, and Castro in SF, etc).

      Regardless, it’s inspiring to hear that China’s future holds more equality, options, and freedom for Chinese people.

  4. This is an odd place, I know, to bring this up but I heard from some citizens that China currently has no laws in place that forbid men to rape other men (or women unto men). Rape, as far as the law is concerned, can only occur when a man acts upon a woman. A student brought it up months ago when there was a case, I believe in Chengdu, of homosexual rape, and the man accused was allowed to go free. I still find it unbelievable, but has anyone else heard anything about this?

  5. I learned almost nothing about sexuality at my school in Chengdu. I hope the Education Bureau will implement more proper and broad programs at shcools regarding the issue.

  6. Not to throw a damper on what I’ve just written, but the other side of the coin when it comes to the gays in China is the number of gay men who currently find themselves forced into traditional, heterosexual marriages for the sake of face, and the miserable fate of women, some knowingly, some unknowingly, who find themselves married to them (tongqi: 同妻). Accoding to one statistic I just came across, ther are 20 million homosexuals in China and 90% enter into heterosexual marriage. So there is still a long way to go before there will be widespread cultural acceptance.

    • I agree. My close friend who is gay never dare to tell his parents that he is gay. He can only pretend not want to marry anyone. He told his parents that he just wants to be single for all his life, but actually he has a partner who he loves very much.

  7. Most parts of China already accept gay and lesbian as normal relationships, and for the reason of surplus males and females, words like 基友(gay friend) and 百合 (lesbians)become popular among Chinese young generations.


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