Wherever in the world you are, coming out can be hard. But in Aotearoa, 23 years after the Homosexual Law Reform Act, and with gay marriage firmly established as a cultural institution, the hope is that those structural changes, and the societal acceptance that birthed them, are hopefully beginning to make it easier for young gay, bi, and trans New Zealanders to find acceptance—both of themselves, and from society at large.
New Zealand definitely still has a long way to go—just look to the shockingly high level of mental health issues among trans Kiwis—but those changes have made New Zealand something of a beacon for young gay citizens of the world. VICE spoke with three members of China Pride NZ, Aotearoa's first Chinese LGBT group, now living in Aotearoa, about the unique challenges that come with growing up gay in China, and how the more liberal laws of this country have helped them find acceptance.
From Hunan, lived in Beijing and Shanghai for several years. Married her partner in NZ last year.
Why did you join the China Pride NZ?
In fact, I didn't feel that I was very special. I’m just an ordinary person living a normal life. It was nothing more than a choice. But when I see a smaller group of people who are struggling within our community, such as transgender people, and the group of people who have suffered from gender dysphoria, I especially want to do something.
The development in China is growing, but not when compared to New Zealand. After all, the laws in New Zealand are perfect, my partner and I don’t need to hide anything. But if we go back to our hometown, we might not be able to hold hands in public.
Have you not come out to your parents yet?
I have, but my partner hasn’t.
"I wrote a diary every day, and I was very scared. After I finished writing, I glued the front and back pages together."
When did you find out that you like girls?
When I was in high school. It was love at first sight. The girl was one year older than me. When I saw her, I thought she was very attractive and couldn’t stop approaching her. Then I reflected on why I kept thinking about her. I wrote a diary every day, and I was very scared. After I finished writing, I glued the front and back pages together.
Why would you do that?
I grew up in a small country town in Hunan, China. There was no internet at the time and it was very closed. I had short hair when I was in junior high school, and I was quite neutral in the way I dressed too, but this style was rare in school at the time. In contrast with everyone else, I felt that I was too strange. I didn’t dare to face myself and my diary.
When did you start facing it?
It was after university when I really got to know the community. There was a QQ group [the equivalent of a Facebook group in China] called "Deep Autumn Cottage". It felt like a door was opened suddenly in front of you. Wow, these are girls who all like girls, and many people share the same story as mine, resulting in a very strong sense of identity/belonging.
But at the beginning it was a very inferior experience. When I was coming of age, I often wore a big fat T-shirt and felt insecure. I was afraid that others would found out I like girls, but I wanted to express myself. After discovering myself as gay after university, there was still a period of struggle to me. For example, I still wasn’t sure if I was tomboy or was transgender. I didn’t know how to find an answer. It took a long time to accept my body slowly. I graduated university in 2002. And I couldn’t fully embrace myself until 2014. Finding this sense of confidence took me 12 years.
What do you think most Chinese people know about LGBT issues now?
It’s hard to get involved with your own family. If it is someone else's child, then it is okay. Just take me as an example, if I have a child. Although I’d fully respect his/her identity, but I would still hope him/her to be straight… the pressure he/she faces from society is much smaller.
Society still needs to catch up…
Of course. In any case, after all, you are a minority. You will face social judgement or unfair treatment.
This is also the reason why many people don’t come out. There are so many friends when they are 27/28, their parents expect them to get married and have a kid. They will consider sham-marriage to placate their parents – it’s so common for gay people in China. Some will even sign contracts.
For example, things like how do you split money after receiving a gift at Chinese New Year. How many times you have to go visit family a year. Even the house has to be bought nearby in case when the parents come to visit, it is more convenient for two people to pretend to live together. In fact, we have also considered this form of sham-marriage, but in the end we can not do it, because a lie will take a bunch of new lies to cover, and finally it will be busted.
"One of the reasons we chose to come here is because NZ recognises gay marriage."
But you’re married?
Correct. One of the reasons we chose to come here is because NZ recognises gay marriage. Maybe I’m at a certain age and want to form a family. Also because my family went through a lot of changes earlier, I’d consider that too if I have an accident, I hope the person I love can have the right to divide my property, or to visit me. In addition, we can be more relaxed together here, and when the child grows up, the environment will be more inclusive.
Now that you’ve joined the New Zealand Chinese Rainbow Alliance, what message would you like to send out?
First, you have to have the courage to move on, you deserved to be loved. Second is that, everyone is a part of the family once you are part of the organisation. Finally, if I want to dream bigger, I want to be able to bring the experience and equal rights movement to China to really make a difference.
From Jiangsu Province. Living in Auckland. Closeted to her parents. (Not pictured)
Why have you not come out？
I’m mainly worried that my parents won’t accept. I fear my confession will hurt them.
My relatives who know I’m a lesbian don't want me to come out directly to my parents. In fact, some relatives have insinuated to my parents about my orientation, but ended up with my mother upset and worried. She said: "If you're homosexual, we will cut ties." I don’t dare to mention this to them again. And I don't know what to talk about. Sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy.
Did your tell your friends?
My close friends all know. "The same kind" can see it easily, and I will also confess if someone asks.
When did you realise you are a lesbian？
I was attracted to girls since kindergarten, but it was from a very early stage. I was always in good relationships with girls, but in China it’s almost a taboo. Something you don’t really discuss openly.
After coming to New Zealand, I met some friends who were more open-minded. I also discovered that I wasn't a creep or a minority. I gradually understood more about the community and started dating girls.
Have you thought about the future？
I have, and I am very confused. So I choose to live in the moment. Carpe diem, you know.
I have thought about a sham marriage too. But when the other person mentioned that he wanted to have a kid. I hesitated. After all, this is a choice of a lifetime, and I was very scared.
I thought my father would be more open-minded on this matter than my mother, but many years ago my dad almost caught me on the spot and his reaction made me desperate. My girlfriend was at my house at the time. The two of us were kind of making out and my dad saw us. I still remember how angry he was and he yelled: "What are you doing?!"
Would your parents react differently if they were here in New Zealand?
I would hope so. At least there wouldn’t be any relatives making judgement on us.
My mother especially likes gardening and dogs. When she’s focused on taking care of the garden and the dog, her mood may change.
Raised in Xinjiang Province, studied in Tianjin then worked in Beijing. Currently residing in New Zealand, and is married to a Kiwi. (Not pictured)
For many Chinese lesbians I’ve talked to, the relationship with your family is a big problem. Is this something the alliance can help with?
To be honest, I don’t think it’ll help. As a person who’s been through all of this, I don't recommend that all young people say: "I’m going to come out". I think you have to be strong enough to do this.
What do you mean by strong enough?
Because you can't imagine what your parents' reaction will be like. If you don't have the stamina, you can't stand it.
I officially came out 10 years ago. I drank too much. I was acting crazy, and then I said it. Although my parents didn't say much – unlike some of the death-threat cases I've seen – but we were in a cold war for about two years. My previous relationship with my parents was quite good. We used to call each other a few times a week. After I came out, my mum cried almost every time on the phone.
When did you start to realise you were a lesbian?
From year seven, so quite early to be honest. I was the deputy class leader. I always hung out with the class leader, who was also a girl. I wanted to see her everyday.
I still remember the day we went to a speech contest: she finished the speech on the stage, and I thought, ‘wow, goddess’. Afterwards, I went home that day and talked to myself in the mirror. The cognitive process was very fast. I said to myself, I seem to like this girl. What should I do? The other half of myself said: Do you know that you are a bit unconventional? You will be different from others. I said, I know. I asked myself again: Do you know that your life will be difficult? I said, I know. The third question I asked myself: Do you still want to do this? I said, that’s fine. It took a total of 10 minutes for me to think this through, and then I never doubted it again.
From your usual contact circle, do you feel any difference between the Chinese and Kiwi lesbian communities?
Yes. For example, my parents didn't come my wedding when I got married. I explained to my Kiwi wife that although my parents accepted me as a lesbian, attending the wedding was another level. But my wife didn't feel completely respected by my parents.
She could not understand. She thinks that I am an independent individual, and why would my parents intervene like this? I said this was a cultural difference. This is also what I hope to express to the local LGBT community through the alliance – let western society understand more about this difference. Because understanding the status quo is the beginning of all changes.
"I think Kiwis should understand that benefits they have fought for will have a huge impact."
Does the life in New Zealand have an impact on you and your relationship with your family?
For sure. For example, if I go back to China, my parents will tell me I still have to keep it low-key, because they still have to live there. But when I am over here, since same-sex marriage is legal in New Zealand, they don’t have a problem with me getting married or having kids.
In other words, if New Zealand didn’t have this law, then my parents would not only be deeply concerned, but also would transmit a sense of "you should not be like this", which would intensify the conflict. I think Kiwis should understand that benefits they have fought for will have a huge impact. They should be proud of themselves.
To learn more about what China Pride NZ is and does, check out chinapride.org.nz