Young Chinese gay men who want to expand their rights at home are seeking a different path from LGBT activists in the West

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The first time Eugene Wu watched a Pride parade in Manchester after arriving in Britain to study architecture in 2017 was a bit of a culture shock.

“I saw a lot of people dressed in eccentric and flamboyant clothes,” said the London-based architectural assistant. “In a Western environment that wouldn’t be a problem, but if it happened in East Asia, which is comparatively more conservative, it would probably cause confusion, even hostility.”

There were also pride events in China, including the Shanghai Parade which was an annual affair until 2020, but Wu had never attended one in his home country.

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“Gay pride is a kind of carnival designed through the lens of Westerners, but our people are more conservative when it comes to sexual expression,” the 24-year-old said. “It could lead to more criticism and misunderstandings, even though that was not our intention.”

Wu is part of a growing group of young Chinese gay men who recognize the limits of LGBT rights in their country, but say the massive application of Western models of activism to the local context is at best ineffective and at worst detrimental to their path. towards acceptance and protection.

There are approximately 70 million people in mainland China who identify as LGBT. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the country in 1997 and removed from the list of mental disorders in 2001.

But discrimination against LGBT people is still common, and gay men in particular have been targeted in a growing crackdown on representations of masculinity that don’t conform to gender norms.

“Men bear a heavy burden from their family, especially their parents, if they are not married to women and have no children to continue the family line,” according to a study in 2019 by Wei Chongzheng and Liu Wenli.

The priorities of homosexuals in China may therefore differ from those of their Western counterparts.

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“For most Chinese gay people, personal factors such as acceptance by family and their community will be more important than structural factors like the right to marry, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their daily lives.” , said Professor Dominic Yeo from Hong Kong. Kong Baptist University, whose research focuses on LGBT youth.

“The westernized style of expression that’s on your face isn’t necessarily the default or most preferred option for the Chinese LGBT community. It’s also not the only indicator of progress.

Collateral damage

In July 2020, Shanghai Pride organizers released a series on the success of their 12th annual festival, tackling a wide range of issues, such as how to make businesses in China more diverse and inclusive, queer and drag nights and the personal stories of individuals. .

“We hope to see everyone at Shanghai Pride 2021!” they wrote.

A month later, in a move many saw as a reflection of the shrinking space for LGBT activism in the country, organizers announced they were “taking a break from programming any future events.”

Professor Chan Lik-sam, who teaches communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the event served as a “symbol of potential progress”.

“It’s about the atmosphere and the environment,” he said. “Even though some people [in China] ignore or dislike these events is bigger than the individuals themselves.

In the early years of the event, it was mostly frequented by Western expats who were also the organizers. Later, they started publicizing the event in Chinese and English, attracting some local attendance.

As more crackdowns have followed – last year there was an official boycott of “sissy idols” and WeChat accounts run by LGBT groups were taken down – some members of China’s LGBT community fear that ‘they do become collateral damage in rising tensions with the West, with homosexuality increasingly seen as a Western ideology.

In response, some have suggested developing more “culturally appropriate” methods to foster national progress.

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Instead of staging Western-style protests, a 21-year-old economics student at Fudan University in Shanghai who wanted to be referred to as Parker Wang suggested going through ‘stable’ and legal channels in China to seek equal rights, such as submitting proposals and suggestions to the National People’s Assembly (APN).

Although same-sex marriage is unlikely to be introduced anytime soon, the 2020 legislature acknowledged petitions for the cause and then solicited public opinion on the subject, a development seen by national campaigners as a glimmer of hope. hope.

“We don’t have to achieve equality by imitating the West,” Wang said. “LGBT culture is not exclusive to Western societies, and we don’t have to point out how the West is supposed to be more tolerant of sexual minorities.”

Yeo argued that authorities had more problems with the pursuit of individualism than homosexuality itself, given that China had traditionally valued collectivism.

“The emphasis on individualism, which claims that LGBT identity is more salient than anything else, is the problem China has,” he said. “Rather than emphasizing the exclusivity of a sexual identity or orientation, it would be more practical [for the Chinese LGBT community] recognize that they are also Chinese and part of the family.

This opinion was echoed by a 23-year-old who asked to remain anonymous and used the pseudonym Leon Li.

“Western countries focus on individualism and self-display, which may be good in nature, but an excessive amount would lead to negative reactions,” said the Guangdong native, who comes out as bisexual. to his close friends and family at the end of 2019. “In the Chinese context, a balance is necessary.

People first

While he doesn’t intentionally hide his sexuality, UK-based Wu said he also doesn’t feel the need to proclaim or highlight his sexuality publicly, despite a changing global landscape that has him. made it easier than before.

“I’m human first before I’m gay,” he said, “I focus on our commonalities as human beings because apart from sexual preference, nothing makes me different.”

Wang believes that while he could be more open with his sexuality abroad, it won’t hurt his sense of national identity and belonging. In fact, he said they were strengthened after witnessing how his country successfully handled the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I have yet to see anyone around me wanting to leave the country just for a more sexually progressive environment,” he said.

Similarly, Wu said he felt that while Britain was generally more accepting of sexual minorities, that was not a factor that would influence where he chose to live. Importantly, he didn’t feel “unsafe” or “uncomfortable” about being a gay man in China.

“My sexuality and my nationality are equal parts of my identity, the two sides don’t conflict and they both make a person attractive,” he said.

The lack of security or comfort some experienced depended less on political factors than on their immediate surroundings, such as their profession, geographic location and family openness, Wu and Li said.

“If one day we are legally and officially listed as an entity that needs to be removed, then I will feel more concerned,” Wang said, while noting that some LGBT-themed activities on campus face restrictions. secrets” from the universities. : “events and meetings still take place, but in private rather than public spheres”.

Wang suggested that domestic activism should now focus on whether the spectrum of sexual preferences was scientifically normal and how well homosexuality was received in ancient China.

“Society is not just about politics, it’s also about consideration of general social acceptance,” Chan said. “Hopefully when the younger, more inclusive generation has more social influence a decade from now, things will be very different.”

ordinary lives

Many men who spoke to the South China Morning Post said they would like to see more progress at the national level to have more diverse portrayals of gay men in the media.

Although there has been an increase in the portrayal of gay men in national media in recent years, they said these productions often miss the mark in portraying “average” gay men in China.

“The gay men magnified in the media are the rich and attractive – the elite – but that’s an inaccurate picture,” Wu said. “Most of us live ordinary lives and do ordinary things, so we don’t have the time or the power to occupy space in the mainstream.”

Li confirmed, “The images of homosexuals in the popular media are the most remarkable, it’s the only way to show us, which creates even more invisible pressure.”

Chan said the version of masculinity in gay-themed productions — such as in popular “Boys Love” dramas and Pride parades — was often characterized by young, athletic, light-skinned and muscular gay men. .

“The more we consume a certain form of media, the more we embrace its worldview, and this may influence young people who have just begun to explore their sexuality to believe that…this is what it means to be ‘gay'”, said the professor. .

Popular norms of attractiveness are also described in sociology as “sex capital”, that is, the social power one acquires due to one’s sexual charm.

“Sex capital itself is an urban, middle-class or upper-class concept,” Yeo said. “Even in the LGBT rights movement in China, we don’t often hear the voice of working-class, rural gay people.”

Wu, however, hopes that over time things will change. “As Gen Z matures, East Asian societies will increasingly accept such subcultures,” he said.

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