I got to know a little about the gay community in China during my second year at university. One of my best friends from school was an openly gay Chinese man. When I came to Beijing for a summer internship I spent much of my free time hanging out with his large group of successful, confident, irreverent, and gay friends.
Prior to that summer, I hadn’t given serious thought to homosexuality in China. I was raised like most Chinese, happily oblivious to issues surrounding cultural stigmas. Gayness, like incest or serial murder, were things that we assumed only afflicted post-industrial societies, where people developed strange conditions from having too much free time on their hands.
During that summer, almost ten years ago, my first lesson on the gay scene was gay vernacular. Just as homosexuals in the west re-appropriated derogatory terms like “queer” as their own, Chinese gays also developed a tongue-in-cheek lingo. They took to calling themselves “tong zhi” (literally “comrade”). You could be a “nan tong zhi” (gay man) or “nu tong zhi” (lesbian woman), or alternatively, a “lala” (lesbian). You could also label yourself “zhi de” (straight) or “wan de” (“crooked”). I laughed at the secretive glee the gay pioneers must’ve felt when they addressed each other by the very terms of endearment used by a regime that, until 1997, deemed sodomy illegal, and until 2001, registered homosexuality as a mental illness. I, too, felt an illicit joy at being included in this largely underground community of rebels.
Nearly a decade later I’m finding a much more “out” scene in China. In the time I spent away, busily toiling as a corporate slave, China’s 30 million homosexuals have made quiet progress. I was surprised to find that I can pick up a copy of TimeOut and read about gay nightlife in Beijing. I can also now Google search China’s first ever Gay Pride Parade (in Shanghai this June) without running into a firewall. Gay activists and organizers can speak about their ambitions to set up Beijing’s first Pride Parade next year in interviews. I can even watch subtly “gay” programming on cable TV.
It is this last point that shocks me the most. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined China’s tightly controlled broadcast media being remotely gay-friendly. But here I was on a Sunday afternoon watching a TV show with strong homosexual undertones.
I was attempting to bond with my broody teenage cousin who has just moved to Beijing for university, so I subjected myself to the torture of watching a celebrity variety show. Hunan Satellite, one of the more popular entertainment channels, was doing a show featuring Coco Lee, an over-the-hill Chinese American R&B singer. There were the usual vapid segments — Coco’s life secrets, her beauty tricks and favorite foods. Then came the fan segment of the show. The producers had combed the country to find the most fanatical devotees who could sing like Coco, dress like Coco, do Coco’s signature “motor butt” hip-gyrating dance.
It was mind numbing…until the featured fans came on stage. I sat up in alert fascination – they were all men! There was a make-up artist who demonstrated how he transforms his masculine face into an uncanny resemblance to Coco (supposedly even her mom couldn’t tell the difference when shown a photo of the fake Coco). There was a young man who proudly performed the “motor butt” dance. There was even a boy who sang with Coco’s signature voice (think Mariah Carey, but in Chinese). Every minute I was expecting the central censors to cut off the programming. But it didn’t happen. The studio audience kept watching and laughing. I kept wondering how the conservative viewers at home were reacting to this overt display of male femininity.
An hour of TV convinced me that China’s mainstream view towards “comraderie” has indeed changed. We’re not quite at the point of aspirational equality yet, but people have changed enough to tolerate public representations of alternative lifestyles. Later, I learned that the unspoken official stance on homosexuality is the “Triple No” policy – no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. This leaves enough grey area for gay activists to set up support networks, but also murkiness for the government to crack down any time it feels uneasy about gay activities. It seems that with all citizen groups in China the government is happy to keep one eye shut as long as the organizations don’t get too political.
It’s still a long way to social acceptance of homosexuality from here, but at least for now China’s “comrades” and “lala’s” can party it up like never before.