China’s LGBTQ+ Groups Focus on Community-Building and Quiet Commemorations of Pride

Life has not gotten easier for China’s LGBTQ+ communities. A looming demographic crisis has inspired calls to strengthen traditional family structures and produce more children, while rising nationalism and xenophobia have caused advocates of more inclusive and tolerant attitudes to be accused of promoting unwelcome “liberal Western values.” Over the past year (and indeed, throughout Xi Jinping’s tenure), the Chinese government has wielded restrictive policies to target sexual and gender nonconformity in society. As Pride month concludes, CDT reflects on the state of LGBTQ+ communities in China and their attempts to develop and thrive, despite the omnipresent threat of censorship and social stigmatization.

While the government continues to suppress LGBTQ+ content, certain online spaces have nonetheless allowed LGBTQ+ groups to flourish. As Chong Liu, Runze Ding, Jen Rao, Simon Frank, Yi-Ling Liu, Krish Raghav, Tianyu Fang, Jaime, and 咸湿佬 discussed in a recent episode of Chaoyang Trap, online porn has become an important tool in the construction, education, and discussion of sexual identities in a highly censored and conservative China:

Chong: Compared to boys, girls were more likely to deliberately search for (or admit that they had searched for) gay porn and Boys Love (BL) comics and literature. ​​BL and gay porn filled in an important gap in China’s inadequate sexuality education. A girl participant told me that, to a certain extent, she obtained knowledge about the existence of sexual minorities and understood civil society according to her active exploration of BL and gay porn. Due to governmental suppression of sexual minorities’ rights, knowledge about LGBT issues is often deliberately obscured and hidden. 

[…] Runze: Interestingly, not many of my gay participants felt guilty when watching porn. For the majority of (young) participants, when they first started to explore their sexual identity online, they would naturally encounter pornographic content. Specifically, for many participants from post-1980s and post-1990s generations [80 后和 90 后], the Internet has become Chinese gay men’s major (if not only) information source for sexually explicit materials. In fact, when many of my younger participants accessed information on homosexuality online, they found that sexually explicit material was the first thing that turned up, which suggests that homoeroticism is inseparable in the construction of gay identity. However, this access is not free from censorship or state control. Many participants noticed the government’s tightening-up censorship on Internet (gay) pornography. They often expressed that getting access to gay porn online was much easier when they were younger. 

[…] Runze: [… The] internet has become the major source for Chinese gay men to explore their sexualities. Digital technologies provide sorely needed alternative spaces for LGBTQ folks to acquire and practice sexual knowledge. The internet creates a relatively safe space where gay men are empowered to satisfy their curiosity, learn about sex, and talk about topics they would unlikely discuss otherwise. [Source]

In response to cultural sensitivities and rising xenophobia, some members of Chinese LGBTQ+ communities have reoriented their advocacy strategies. Jerome Yau, the co-founder of Hong Kong Marriage Equality, for example, has argued that despite the Western dominance over popular, visible forms of modern noncomforming sexuality and sexual orientation, traditional values of Confucianism are no impediment to greater acceptance of same-sex marriage in China, as long as matrimony is grounded in love and commitment. Cyril Ip from the South China Morning Post reported on others who have shunned marriage equality while adopting non-Western approaches to expanding LGBTQ+ rights

“For most Chinese gay men, personal factors such as acceptance from family and their community will be more important than structural factors like the right to marry, to the extent that it does not impinge on their daily lives,” said Professor Dominic Yeo from Hong Kong Baptist University, whose research focuses on LGBT youth.

“The Westernised style of expression that is in your face, is not necessarily the default or most preferred option for China’s LGBT community. It is also not the only metric of progress.”

[…] Yeo argued that authorities had more of an issue with the pursuit of individualism rather than homosexuality itself, given that China had traditionally valued collectivism.

“The emphasis of individualism, which purports that one’s LGBT identity is more salient than anything else, is the issue that China has,” he said. “Rather than emphasising the exclusiveness of a sexual identity or orientation, it would be more practical [for the Chinese LGBT community] to acknowledge that they are also Chinese and part of the family.”

[…] “Western countries focus on individualism and self-display, which are things that may be good in nature, but an excessive amount would draw backlash,” said [an anonymous 23-year-old from Guangdong], who came out as bisexual to close friends and family in late 2019. “In the Chinese context, a balance is necessary.” [Source]

Elaborating on these differences between Western and Chinese contexts for Sixth Tone, Song Lin, an assistant professor at Jinan University’s School of Journalism and Communication and the author of “Queering Chinese Kinship,” recently described the power of alternative methods of finding queer acceptance within Chinese family relations and values:

In its dominant Western definition, a person’s queer family exists outside their biological family, which is seen as a heteronormative institution. […]

Although appealing to some, the liberal focus on “choice” [in choosing a queer-friendly family of friends and lovers] in [Kath] Weston’s model presupposes a range of cultural, social, political, and economic privileges that many queer Chinese simply do not enjoy. Homosexuality has been de-criminalized and largely de-pathologized in contemporary China, but it nevertheless exists in the shadow of a powerful heterosexism which sees homosexuality, along with other forms of non-heterosexual, non-familial, and non-monogamous sex, as abnormal and morally unacceptable.This strong heterosexist inclination is reflected in the prominence of traditional familism, which, though reticent on the topic of homosexuality, persistently upholds the heterosexual reproductive family as the only acceptable family structure.

[…] A good example [of queer families in China] is “form marriages,” or xinghun. Essentially contract marriages between gay men and lesbian women, they help LGBT Chinese cope with social stigma and reproductive pressure from their biological families. Viewed through a Western lens, form marriages might look like a simple imitation of heterosexual marriage. But scholars like Shuzhen Huang and Daniel C. Bower have shown how form marriage can be empowering and disruptive, turning the ostensibly heterosexual institution of matrimony into a tool for the survival of homosexual intimacy. And imitation is not necessarily flattery. Form marriages constitute what Judith Butler terms “parodic repetition;” their very existence problematizes marriage as the default reproductive heterosexual institution in China.

In other words, in the absence of legal same-sex marriage protections, form marriages offer a way to embody queer desires within a supposedly heteronormative construct. [Source]

However, even when averting the Western model, pursuing this Chinese relational model has become even more difficult among doubly vulnerable queer populations, such as Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Reflecting on his encounters in Ürümchi with a closeted Uyghur friend who was assigned female at birth and presented masculine, LGBTQ+ researcher Sam Tynen described in SupChina last week how his friend was trapped by both state repression and conservative family values

Hemrahjan and other straight Uyghurs I met associated homosexuality with urban life and Han influence. In the backdrop of a military police state, policing was not limited to the Chinese state, but enforced on bodies by Uyghurs themselves. As the Uyghur community was under threat of cultural erasure, holding on to whatever traditions they could was important. Many grasped and held on to their sense of morality, even if this meant discriminating against the LGBTQ community.

[…] I had transplanted romantic foreign ideas to a context still suffering the weight of colonization. I had utopian visions of building a path to change, but my perspective was that of a privileged white person. I had failed to take into account that the freedom to protest and live against the grain — to be “abnormal,” to be queer — is not always feasible, especially for already vulnerable populations. Patigul didn’t have the money to live on their own in the city as I suggested, let alone be out and proud. Besides, they were Uyghur. They were constantly targeted for their ethnicity alone. Patigul was trapped by the limitations of society, family, and nation. I wanted them to be proud and independent; their reality was erasure and double minority oppression.

[…] Like Patigul, many queer Uyghurs found themselves ostracized by their own families as well as discriminated against by society at large. If Patigul got an arranged marriage to a man, they would have had to live with that bodily and emotional trauma for the rest of their life. Losing sovereignty over one’s body in this way is part of the reproduction of state and colonial violence, which overlapped with trauma in the family. State and colonial violence are often reproduced in the family and on the body for the most vulnerable populations. [Source]

Hong Kong, previously known as a liberal haven for LGBTQ+ expression in Asia, is confronting the limits of systemic improvement on minority rights. LGBTQ+ youth have voiced frustration about policies limiting access to public transgender healthcare services and corporations instrumentalizing Pride month for profit. Their activism has been complicated by Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law and decimation of the city’s once-thriving civil society. Isabella Steger from Bloomberg reported on activists’ fears that the government’s crackdown on civil society will undo progress on LGBTQ+ rights:

Well-known LGBTQ figures, including former lawmakers and singers, have been arrested or jailed for their political activism. The national security law imposed following the violent protests of 2019 has also exacerbated the pandemic’s restrictive impact, forcing the suspension of the annual Pride marches and prompting human rights lawyers to leave the city. 

“We are worried that there will be a decrease in the space where LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) activists can challenge discriminatory laws through legal avenues,” said Kai Ong, a researcher with Amnesty International. Amnesty shut its operations in the city last October, saying the national security law made it impossible to operate without fear of reprisals. 

[… Some] worry about the effects of a widening campaign of repression against LGBTQ rights and growing chauvinism in mainland China. For example, pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong last year launched homophobic attacks against the Gay Games, which were due to be held for the first time in Asia in Hong Kong.

[…] Amnesty’s Ong said that the Gay Games row and Beijing’s crackdown on advocates of sexual minorities meant global banks may think twice about lending their support to such causes in the future, especially after Shanghai’s Pride event was abruptly shut down in 2020. [Source]

CDT has compiled a non-exhaustive monthly timeline of government measures rolling back LGBTQ+ rights since January 2021:

Recently, CDT Chinese republished a now-deleted post from Wechat account @柠柠堡贝 that offered a point-by-point rebuttal to a university’s reprimand of a student who attempted to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia by placing ten rainbow flags on a table in an on-campus supermarket. The university later issued a written reprimand to the student for displaying “propaganda materials,” among other supposed violations of university policy. The final paragraph of the post is a poignant reflection on how marginalized individuals and groups must often fight to make themselves heard:

Suffering that cannot be spoken is much more painful than suffering that can be spoken. But I am trying to broaden the range of suffering that can be spoken of, and not allow myself to be frightened or intimidated. If I am indeed silenced, then I will use that silence to speak. [Chinese]

Translation by Cindy Carter.

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