This isn’t a piece on the spectacle of gay struggle in China, but on how the social currents of 2017 that affect all people are affecting gay people in China.
The primary social current today is the huge leap in communication we’re experiencing in the age of the internet. Worldwide networks amplify the reach of any single voice. Social media allows each of us to curate our own performance of who we are, and reach into communities outside of our established selves. For youth coming of age and exploring single life, it means more opportunities to exit the home sphere and define how they hold themselves.
For a lot of the gay community worldwide, the gap between a home self and a self self is significant, and the size of that gap in China is widened by the longstanding tradition of a filial home. A family is considered successful if children can flourish under the care of their parents, and if the responsibility of care can eventually be passed from the aging parents to the married children. Grandchildren will also be in the mix. The weight of this responsibility is significant, in a generation of sons and daughters without brothers or sisters. In a study by WorkForLGBT, only 18% of men surveyed responded that they had come out to their families.
With family values locked rigidly in place, it’s unfortunate that legislative and institutional progress has been just as stagnant. In 1997, homosexuality was removed from the list of prosecutable offenses. In 2001, the government declared it was no longer considered a mental disorder. But just this year, state officials laid out a new set of regulations censoring the display of “abnormal sexual behaviors” —including homosexuality — from online media. The move was met with outcry from the country’s LGBT communities, who felt it was a huge step backwards after years of slow and steady progress.
The family and federal stigmas weighing down the gay community in China for the past 20 years haven’t disappeared. A local friend mentioned the difficulties he had coming out to his family.
“I mean, in retrospect I guess it went as fine as it could in a Chinese family. There was still a lot of crying and misunderstanding and all that shit, but it’s not like they’re kicking me out or disowning me or anything. I mean they’re not waving rainbow flags in parades either, but thats alright. I just try to keep a functional relationship with them.”
But on a cultural level, LGBT acceptance is at an all-time high since the founding of modern China.
“On one hand, the legislation is still harsh, and attitudes haven’t changed too much there. But on a wider social and cultural level, there’s kind of a concensus that being gay is ok,” another local friend studying in Shanghai tells me.
In the communication age, a young gay person has a wider network of like-minded people to reach, stretching their identity as a single adult further from their identity at home with family. Censorship is no longer as black and white as it used to be, and with new media influxes from live-streaming to Douban boards to amorphous WeChat groups, cyberspace exists as a difficult-to-contain realm for social dialogue. Blued, China’s response to apps like Grindr, has grown into the largest gay social network in the world with over 27 million users.
Daily new apps all trying to strike gold constitute a shifting battleground for government censorship, as well as new modes of connection for single people and people in general. With more freedom to learn and define oneself, today’s generation is coming of age in a different way than before, and manifesting a different culture around them. It’s especially true of the gay community — communication between people is yielding a more informed and connected society, one that could come to “kind of a consensus” that LGBT identities are valid. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s huge leaps from this same generation’s childhood, when being gay was a prosecutable crime.
Chinese LGBT social app Blued has grown into the largest gay social network in the world with over 27 million users
A difficulty facing China’s gay community is that the road ahead is not clear. In a Democratic society, the gay community has to fight a long and arduous series of battles, proving its case and convincing others of its legitimacy as a movement. In a Communist society, open discussion and dialogue about gay rights is generally squelched, meaning progress occurs in more complex, unpredictable angles. China’s legislature works from the top-down, rather than from the bottom-up, and the top has proven difficult to influence. In those circumstances, social progression by exposure and education is more than just a hope for grassroots change — it’s one of the only visible hopes for change.
With digital spaces carved out to self-educate and understand themselves, young people are more ready to wield and embody their sexual identities than ever before. Young gay people are more equipped to express their nature into the world around them, and the increased exposure and visibility of gay identity pushes on the rudder of national cultural norms, steering them even further in the direction of young ideas. It’s a self-sustaining process that’s difficult for the government or dogmatic family values to slow down.
A Malaysian-born queer friend living in China put it like this:
“For young queer people living in regions of the world that are less progressive, it’s especially important, and sometimes critical for their emotional and mental health, to distance themselves from their restricted or false identity in the family, which they often do by exploring themselves online.”
So is the environment for young gay people in China getting better? On the institutional end, movement is slow. The government is reluctant to embrace new ideas of any kind, and the Confucian roots behind China’s social constructs have deep footholds. But if you look at the cultural frontier, especially in major cities, China’s perspective and capacity to understand LGBT issues is evolving. Earlier this year, a group of parents of gay children met online and went together to the marriage market in Shanghai’s People’s Park to matchmake for their sons and daughters. The group was met with a heated response by crowds and local police, but other reports mention some of the earnest dialogue born out of the confrontation. Instances of simple exposure like this play an important role in the humanization and visibility of gay rights, and as cyberspace becomes increasingly personalized and separate from home life, gay people and allies have more capabilities to catalyze those instances.
On an ongoing path to equality where the next turn is not quite within sight, digital and social progression are reassuringly constant.
Cover photo: AP / Kim Cheung