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Attitudes toward homosexuality relax in China, but pressures remain

BEIJING—Like many homosexuals in China, 22-year-old Chen Lei enjoys the newfound liberties of urban gay life. But he feels he can't fight his destiny: to marry a woman for whom he feels no attraction.

For economic, social and cultural reasons, the pressure on homosexuals in China to wed and raise families is high.

In Chen's case, his family hails from a village in Inner Mongolia, and he dares not tell them of his private life in the big city, knowing they wouldn't tolerate it.

"I only have an older sister. So I'm definitely going to have to marry and have children," Chen said. His mother already has made introductions to two young women.

Attitudes toward homosexuality in China have relaxed in the big cities, where gay bars flourish and Web sites nurture a sense of community. Mentioning homosexuality no longer is taboo on television newscasts and public service announcements, and government media have stopped lumping homosexuals as deviants along with prostitutes, gamblers and drug addicts. Gay groups have sprung up on university campuses.

Yet China appears unique in the way that enormous family pressures are brought to bear on gay men. Nearly three decades have passed since China began a "one-child policy" of limiting most couples to single offspring to curb a population that's already soared to 1.3 billion. Most young gay men are the only sons of their families. If they don't marry and have children, their family trees wither, a fate that most Chinese deem dreadful.

"The major difference between Chinese homosexuals and those in the West is that many of them (here) will get married with people of the opposite gender," said Li Yinhe, a researcher into sexual behavior with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "No matter how hard they fight or how long they delay, they end up getting married anyway because the pressure is so high."

This has led to a spate of loveless—and often short—marriages designed to placate the family and procure progeny.

"Many gays hurry to marry, then hurry to divorce," said Xiao Dong, the head of a volunteer civic group in Beijing's Chaoyang district that battles AIDS.

Li, who appears regularly on television as perhaps China's most widely known sexual behaviorist, said distraught parents often contacted her.

"Many parents feel that the sky has fallen when they learn that their children are homosexuals," Li said. "One mother wanted to commit suicide."

Parents want their gay children to marry not only because they themselves want grandchildren—in some cases for financial support in their old age—but also because they think that their sons will be miserable without children, Li said.

In rural areas attitudes toward homosexuals are palpably negative, harking back to the era more than a decade ago when state media commonly referred to homosexuality as a "foreign disease."

Li Yang, a 29-year-old gay masseur in Beijing, demurred when he was asked whether he'd ever go back to live in his village in Liaoning province, in the northeast of China. "You don't find gays there," he said. "I'd have no way to satisfy my needs."

Xiao, the AIDS activist, said he'd recently visited rural Shandong province and listened to accounts of how gays "must be very secretive. They live very painful lives."

A 2004 government report recognized 5 million to 10 million gays and lesbians in China, although unofficial estimates put the figure at 30 million.

Authorities haven't opened the door all the way to homosexuals. Last year, China declined to let cinemas exhibit the gay-cowboy love story "Brokeback Mountain" even as state media heaped praise on Taiwanese director Ang Lee for winning an Oscar as best director.

Still, health issues pushed the government to the forefront in bringing homosexuality before the public eye, as private groups and United Nations experts warned that AIDS rates were about to skyrocket. The Ministry of Health claims that China has around 650,000 carriers of the AIDS virus. AIDS prevention campaigns now are shown on television screens in railway cars and in other public venues.

In the last several years, the government has opened health clinics for homosexuals in Shenzhen, Chongqing and Nanjing that offer tests for sexually transmitted diseases and information on practicing safe sex. Last November, Beijing inaugurated a clinic that offers free testing for AIDS. It also set up an Internet chat room for gays on a district Web site, titled "Forum for Comrades"—using the slang term for gay men.

On a recent night at the Boyfriend Bar, a gay hangout at a trendy canal-side site in northern Beijing, two men wearing bangles and halter tops put on a drag show, writhing as belly dancers. An emcee in a beige leisure suit with spangles animated the crowd.

"Society is progressing. As long as we homosexuals don't commit crimes or do illegal drugs, we are left alone," said Lu Jiahui, the bar's manager.

When Chinese parents learn that their sons are gay, most still press for marriage.

"Some of them say to their children, `It doesn't matter that you have a male partner. It's OK as long as you get married (to a woman) and have a child,'" said Zhang Beichuan, an expert on homosexuality at Qingdao University's medical school.

Zhang said many gays remained deeply wary of disclosing their orientation to their families. He said his own research survey found that 6 out of 10 homosexuals feared that the disclosure would lead to emotional distress inflicted by their family members.

For his part, Chen, who works at a karaoke bar, said he wouldn't disclose his homosexuality to his family and eventually would succumb to the pressures to wed.

"Once I get married, I'll try to live a good family life. I won't try to live like I live now," he said. He expects to keep his orientation secret even from his bride.

"I'm not going to tell her," he said matter-of-factly.

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(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun in Bejing contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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