This Is What It's Like to Come Out in China
"My sex ed teacher brought up homosexuality once. All he said was that it was a psychological disease."
Will laughs to himself while he watches the bouncer sift through his backpack, knowing he'll only find lube and condoms. A thick crowd of Chinese men check each other out in a courtyard removed from the street. The bass from one of Beijing's most popular gay clubs pulsates. The bouncer ushers us in, saying, "Maybe don't tell any Westerners about what goes on in here." The heavy brass doors part, and the club sucks him in.
One week earlier and over 1000 miles West, in Sichuan province, I'd first interviewed Will (not his real name) underneath the dust-filtered glow of a lamp-lit highway overpass. He'd just finished sparring Tai Qi with his master, whose door he had prostrated in front of for 12 hours before being accepted. The three of us—Will, his 60-year-old, chain-smoking, impressively nimble Tai Qi teacher, and me—talked about a sentiment that's increasingly popular in China these days: an appreciation for the coexistence of the old and the new, tradition and breakthrough. The Tai Qi teacher and I both looked at Will, nodding.
In 2001, when Will was nine, the Chinese Society of Psychiatry removed homosexuality and bisexuality from the official list of mental disorders in the Chinese Classification of Medical Disorders. Notably, they cleared Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) but neglected to strike Transgender (T) from the list of psychological diseases.
Today, China is home to what is speculated to be the largest LGBT community in the world. Grindr, with 5 million global users, was heartily beat out by China's gay geo-social app Blued, now with 15 million users, 12 million within China's borders. The government, on the other hand, remains quiet on the issue. "They neither condone or condemn us, which is frustrating but livable," William says.
Will is a 22-year-old Chinese student from Beijing, currently finishing up his undergraduate degree in Chengdu, Sichuan, the so-called "gateway to the West" of China. Will self-identifies as gay, and has taken part in demonstrations in Mainland China and Taiwan. Next year, he'll study at China's most prestigious university, Tsinghua, to earn his masters in philosophy.
My sex ed teacher brought up homosexuality once. All he said was that it was a psychological disease.
Will's goal is to "modernize Chinese thought," part of which means proving the compatibility of rigid traditional dogma unique to China. Compared with the Christian or Islamic world, Will believes China can be among the most progressive countries on the planet on LGBT issues if awareness is built into the education system.
VICE spoke with Will about coming out in Chinese society, the trickiness of being a gay male heir, and normalizing gay sex.
VICE: Growing up in the 90s in China, when did you first realize you were gay? What was your first exposure to the concept of being gay?
Will: When I first realized there was such a thing as "gay"—when I realized there was such a concept—I was 11. It was often brought up casually in society, movies, the media; they all would mention '同性恋,' tóng xìng lìan, but I didn't know what that was. No one ever defined it, so I made guesses just by looking at individual characters.
The Chinese word for gay and lesbian is the same: 同性恋，tóng xìng lìan. The first character means "same." The second character primarily means sex. However, its pronunciation and tone is the same as 姓, xìng, which means family name, as opposed to 性, xìng, which means sex.When first meeting someone in China, it is polite to ask them what is their xìng. You aren't asking "What is your sex?" but rather, "What is your family name?"
Right, so instead of understanding it as "same sex love" I thought people were talking about "same family name love," two men of the same '性,' xìng, the same family name. Because they had the same family name, they would date. We would joke around with other male classmates, "Your family name is Wang. My family name is Wang. We are tóng xìng lìan!"
It wasn't until I was 11 that I wandered across a website called Friend, Don't Cry. Now the site is ancient, but I think it still exists. It has a lot of small stories and novels, forums, pictures of guys. The forum describes gay lifestyle. I saw those and was like, "Oh, I've been gay this whole time."
You don't need to hop the Great Firewall to access the site?
Nope. Anyone could access it. I know a lot—a lot, a lot—of young and even older Chinese guys who found this site, or sites like it, and finally realized they weren't perverts or weirdos.
What did you do when you realized you are gay?
Experimented. I had the information—I knew what a blowjob was—but [I didn't have] education on the emotional side of relationships. I was only 12. Next came anal sex. He was older than me by ten years. It was consensual. Actually, it was me who seduced him. Now it is probably illegal. He probably shouldn't have done that. I was 13.
It wasn't good. I was not emotionally mature enough. I was lacking a good understanding of the emotional side of sex. I lacked a sex education altogether. There was no moralizing sex between men like [there is] with women, no "no sex before marriage" or "first time should be about love" type of stuff. If you're only looking at the websites or the book, you wouldn't think that sex with a man is a taboo concept, you wouldn't think that we should wait until later to try it. There was no need to think twice.
What was sex ed like in China? Did your teacher bring up homosexuality?
In elementary school, we had a class called "Pubescence Education." It was with our school doctor. He was also the biology teacher. He just made us watch a movie called The World of the Human Body. At that time, he brought up homosexuality once. All he said was that it was a psychological disease.
When people online comment about gay people, people will fire back, "What are you using to comment right now?" Alan Turing was gay. No gays, no computer.
Have you come out to your family?
For the average Chinese gay guy, the hardest part is always going to be coming out to your parents, but not for the same reasons as you guys in the West. Chinese people really emphasize 孝道, xìao dào, [most often translated as filial piety]. Opposition to homosexuality is mainly based on 不孝, so not being filial, not being a good son.
This concept is Confucian, right? Can you explain the connection between being a good son and having children?
Confucianism isn't religion in the Western sense, but it is the bedrock of Chinese tradition. It creates a moral system.
China's issue with gays goes like this: sleeping with a guy makes it impossible to have offspring. The guy part isn't necessarily bad, but the no offspring is 不孝, not filial. There is a line central to Confucianism engraved on the hearts of most Chinese people, either consciously or socially coded: "不孝有三，无后为大." It means, "There are three main ways of being unfilial, the worst of which is not providing descendants."
So the issue with being gay in China isn't about being somehow "unnatural" or somehow sinful, as it is out West. The problem is logistical: how to have a son.
Exactly. There are other issues in terms of family structure, but at the core of the issue is that line. More or less, the worst moral transgression is to not be a good son, and not having a child of your own is the worst way to commit that transgression.
How did your parents react when you came out?
My dad didn't say anything, just leaned back and kept looking at the ceiling. My mom said, "If you're sure, we can only accept this." Three days later, my dad and I sat down to talk about the important details.
Why not your mom?
It wasn't related to her. It was my dad's and my issue.
What kind of details did you discuss?
I have a pretty heavy role in the family. I am my dad's only son. Frankly, with the One Child Policy, he's lucky he had a son. His brothers only have daughters. The passage of the family name needs a son, and it is my duty.
There are a lot of modern options that sort of skirt the male/female aspect of having a son. In vitro fertilization, for instance, is a way to pass on the bloodline without marrying a girl. Making a type of agreement with a lesbian is a thing that is happening more in China, too, which I know might not be received well back West. All consensual, obviously.
Does traditional Chinese thought have anything to say about homosexuality specifically?
Ancient China looks at homosexuality as a type of personal hobby. By that I mean, you could marry your wife, have your son, and also get down with another beautiful guy. There are some literary works and songs that extoll gay virtues, and there are also some that make fun of this sort of gay tomfoolery, but all in all there is no serious or deep discussion of homosexuality.
Now, though, homosexuality, particularly male homosexuality, is a major topic in Chinese media. How have attitudes changed toward homosexuality since you were a kid?
Now there are a lot of popular jokes involving gays. There are gay characters in TV shows, even if they don't come out and say it. There are viral Chinese gay videos made by Zank. Sometimes it is negative, sometimes it is positive, mostly it just includes it.
Gays sometimes are portrayed under the rigid stereotype of "thirsty," always looking for opportunities to have anal sex.
In a way, it is like being seen. We exist now. Jokes or not, it can make young people's attitude warm up to the idea of homosexuality.
More and more people are realizing homosexuality is genetic, which has of course not been proven definitively, but still it shifts blame toward [genetics] instead of the child or his upbringing. People also understand the maxim, "We should respect homosexual lifestyle choices."
Still, prejudice exists everywhere. Gays sometimes are portrayed under the rigid stereotype of "thirsty," always looking for opportunities to have anal sex.
Who is the biggest gay role model in China right now?
Bizarrely, Tim Cooke. His coming out did a lot for people's perceptions with the craze around Apple products. If people say gays are gross online or anything, people will reply, "Are you using an iPhone to write this?"
More intense even is when people online comment about gay people, people will fire back, "What are you using to comment right now?" Alan Turing was gay. No gays, no computer.
What do you think is the most important issue for the LGBT community here in China?
Without a doubt, sex ed. Marriage is a later consideration. Right now, [many] people don't understand the basics of being gay.
Most importantly, beyond the physical safety aspect, is the psychological aspect. Being homosexual in this society, how should you protect yourself? How do you handle your sexuality? Who should you tell, who shouldn't you tell? How much should you tell who? If you have feelings toward a straight boy, how should you handle that? Because no one ever told me any of this, I went down a lot of dark and sometimes dangerous paths before things cleared up for me.
Follow Zak on Twitter.