Last week, I was asked by Dutch radio programme De Andere Wereld (“The Other World”) to do a short audio report on being gay in China. During my interviews with several people in the Kunming gay scene, I met so many interesting people and opinions that I realised the subject was worth more than 5 minutes of radio time. I’d like to share my findings with you here.

A man in a Roman toga walks up the catwalk at Nono bar
A man in a Roman toga strides up the catwalk at Nono bar

Legalised in 1997 and scrapped from the list of mental illnesses as late as 2001, homosexuality in China is still a fairly sensitive topic. Even though modern cities as Beijing and Shanghai have a thriving gay scene, many homosexuals remain in the closed, nailed shut by family expectations and a lack of information. This is no less the case in Kunming, the capital of chiefly rural Yunnan province.

Our investigation starts at Pandora, a gay club that welcomes patronage of all inclinations. Tucked away in the alleys behind Jinma Square 金马坊, Pandora used to be quite popular with the foreign community when the nearby Hump bar was still in business. Nowadays, the clientèle is entirely Chinese.

Amidst deafening music, bright laser flashes and overpriced warm beer – satisfying all criteria for a typical Chinese club – Luo, who does not want to use his real name, quickly reveals himself as a Tongzhi 同志, or gay. Literally translated ‘same-ideals’, the word means ‘comrade’ (think communist speeches) but is most likely a humorous contraction of 同性恋者 (pinyin: tongxinglianzhe ‘same-sex loving’, i.e. homosexual).

“Most of my friends know, but it’s impossible to explain it to them,” he says. ‘Them’ are his parents. Luo, who is now 23, told them he was gay 3 months ago. “My father cried and my mother simply didn’t speak, but I could tell she was deeply unhappy,” he says. He has since moved from his hometown in Fujian province to Kunming, to work.

Meet the parents

Parents and family are the biggest obstacle for gay men dying to come out. Zhang Yibin, another young gay man from a small village in Henan province, is even too mortified to tell anyone. No one must know: not his parents, not his friends, no-one. He speaks English – impeccably so – for fear of being overheard by other guests in the cafe.

“In China,” he says, “it’s the son who is responsible to hand down the family name, especially in smaller places.” Parents are not necessarily homophobic but they are crushed when they learn their bloodline stops with their only child. Yibin partially blames China’s family planning policy, introduced in 1979, which allows families to register only one child. Especially in rural families where boys are required to work the fields, it is not uncommon for unwanted girls to be ‘aborted’, before or after birth, in favour of a boy. If this boy is unable to continue the bloodline, it is a tragedy for the whole family.

Billboard "Having a boy or a girl is equally good. Population quality is more important"
“Having a boy or a girl is equally good. Population quality is more important”. China’s rural areas are dotted with billboards aimed at preventing female infanticide. Image courtesy of Matthew Hartzell.

Jingqi (24) and Xingxing (25), respectively a dancer and an MC at Kunming’s newest gay bar Nono, face similar problems. They are not afraid to tell their peers, but remain quiet towards their parents. “Too many Chinese parents can’t bare the thought,” Xingxing confirms.

“I’ll marry a female comrade”

Both men feel relatively safe because their parents prefer playing Mahjong over visiting their children at work. But when the time comes to get married, how will they uphold the façade?

“I’m probably going to get married to a girl,” says Jingqi, “but I’ll ask a female comrade (i.e. a lesbian). We’ll live together to keep our parents happy, but we’ll each do our own thing when they’re not watching.” Xingxing agrees that the pressure will be high, “but we see no other way,” he sighs. Both men hope that gay marriage will be legalised soon, but harbour no illusions. “Even though the one-child policy is being relaxed at this time, this is still China. We’re not going to live to see it, but perhaps our children will.” Jingqi dreams about travelling with his boyfriend to The Netherlands, the first country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001.

Yibin, on the other hand, sees redemption abroad. “If I can, I will move to Canada, or Germany, and never come back,” he says, adding that he prefers Caucasian men anyway. Yibin is currently applying for a Chinese government programme that will fund his studies abroad. The programme requires him to return to China, but he is positive that his education will give enough leverage to get out again later. For Xingxing and Jingqi, such a move is unthinkable. “Our lives and our loved ones are here, there’s no way we can leave it all behind.”

Kunming's Pandora Bar: Gay but open to everyone.
Kunming’s Pandora Bar. Gay but open to everyone. Image from

Gay? Fine, but not in my family

Attitudes towards homosexual people in China are mild. There is little to none of the violence that many western gays are faced with, and, while bigotry certainly exists, people generally keep it to themselves. According to Jingqi, China’s citizens are educated to act and react mildly, and to shun violence. Very few people make crude jokes or any jokes at all, beyond perhaps suggesting that two men get married. When asked for their opinion about homosexuality, few people in the street seem to care much. “I wouldn’t like it to be my son,” one woman surnamed Li says, “other people do what they want, really.”

Billboard "Having a boy or a girl is equally good. Girls can also continue the bloodline".
“Having a boy or a girl is equally good. Girls can also continue the bloodline”. China’s rural areas are dotted with such billboards.

Later at Nono bar, Wang, a young man belonging to the Dai minority, paints an even prettier picture of tolerance in certain regions. “Because us Dai are chiefly Buddhist, Dai people are generally very open about it. In the eyes of Buddha, everyone is equal.” His hometown of Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, many people are openly gay and there are a few well-known gay bars, according to Wang.

He also claims that because the Dai, like many of China’s ethnic minorities, live closer to nature, they are more tolerant to the very natural phenomenon of homosexuality. Surprisingly enough, his mother was devastated to hear that Wang was gay. She cried and blamed him for immoral behaviour. “I did not reckon with the fact that she is a devout Christian,” Wang said, somewhat matter-of-factly.

Some of this relative tolerance may be explained by the fact that public display of affection, even between straight people, is rare in China. Standing out from the crowd is also very uncommon in Asian culture. Away from his job at the bar, where he costumes as a flamboyant pink hotel porter, Xingxing says he doesn’t dress extraordinarily. “I’m still a man, I don’t see why I should look feminine,” he says, “but suppose I did dress up: people wouldn’t shout abuse at me or physically attack me. They will not even voice criticism. At worst they’d give me an inspecting glance and quietly wonder why there seem to be so many gay people these days.”

Finding yourself, finding others

With public display at a minimum, and information and education around homosexuality lacking, how do China’s homosexuals find out they’re gay – and how do they recognise a possible gay partner?

Both Jingqi and Xingxing had always known, they say. “From the earliest stages of puberty, I knew I was attracted to men.” Xingxing did have a girlfriend when he was 15. To this day he is adamant that he loved her deeply, but wasn’t physically attracted. When this relationship ended, he fell in love with the man who supported him through his love sickness. “On the street, however, it’s the eyes.

Yibin’s story was a little different. He never heard about homosexuality until he started watching movies and tv-series from Hong Kong. “I was shocked! I didn’t think it was possible for two men to fall in love with each other,” he says. Things changed when he went to university. “I don’t know exactly what happened, but when my roommates were watching porn, I suddenly realised I was more interested in seeing the men than the women.”

HIV and the city

In Pandora bar, Zhang points at a man in a leather jacket climbing on stage and commencing a seductive dance. “That’s my boyfriend,” he says shyly, “we’ve only been together for a very short time.” Zhang and his boyfriend do not have sex and are not planning to, soon. “We don’t have sex, because we’re too afraid of HIV – even with a condom. I’ve taken a test, but my boyfriend is reluctant.”
Map detailing reported HIV cases in China. Yunnan and Henan provinces are clearly in the black.
Map detailing reported HIV cases in China. Yunnan and Henan provinces are clearly in the black. Image from Wikipedia.
HIV is a serious problem in this part of China, further aggravated by opium use and abuse in what used to be the Golden Triangle, and also as a result of a sex industry catering to the enormous influx of migrant workers in cities such as Mengzi (see this article by Monica Tan). Travellers in the region will find drug- and HIV-prevention leaflets along with the condoms in their hotel rooms (in Honghe Prefecture, the condoms are even compulsory). Xingxing and Jingqi, too, are afraid, “but no more than straight people. Of course we take the necessary precautions, like using condoms and sticking to a single sex partner, so we consider ourselves pretty safe.”

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