For many older Chinese, the idea of homosexuality is "a blur"by Yuan Ren / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
I’m never certain how sensitive the topic of sexual orientation is with new friends. In Beijing at least, among the media, arts and expat circles, there is little taboo attached to homosexuality. But the law lags behind liberal social attitudes. Last month, a gay Chinese couple brought their marriage case to court for the very first time in China. Their appeal for recognition of their marriage failed—China’s laws against same-sex unions remain fully enforced.
Matthew Meng, a 24-year-old Arts graduate who works in Beijing, says that he feels little pressure to keep his orientation under wraps in the capital. Over breakfast, we spoke about his relationships as well as his current boyfriend, who he says is the type of boy that his mother could accept. “He’s much more steady in character and career than my last boyfriend; in the future, if we both have stable careers, my mother might be inclined to give us her blessing.”
As we walked out, I asked if his extended family also knew he was gay. “What? Of course not”, Matthew replied, “none of my family knows I’m gay.” I was taken aback. It didn’t occur to me that the conversation we just had was under the pretext of “one day.”
Chen, a partner of a boutique fashion brand, thinks that most gay people in their twenties and thirties would not reveal their sexual orientation to parents. “In a big city like Beijing, the hardest thing that gay men face isn’t the law or social prejudice,” says Chen, a partner in a boutique fashion store in Beijing. “If there’s anything to protest against, it’s by far parental pressure. I definitely couldn’t ever tell my dad, because he simply won’t accept it.”
I was again struggling to equate in my mind how someone speaking so openly, and at ease with their sexuality could never reveal such an integral part of their identity to their loved ones.
“The thing is, for many of our parents’ generation, the concept of homosexuality itself is a blur,” says Chen. He isn’t exaggerating. I have relatives who question the existence of homosexuality: “How do they know they like someone of the same sex?” a family member once asked me.
And it’s not just my parent’s generation who are puzzled. Many straight men my age have similarly expressed their unease with homosexuality. “When do you think they realise that they like men?” one friend recently asked. “Well, I guess it’s the same as how everyone else finds out they like someone,” I replied, “maybe as a teenager.”
Chen says he will probably one day find a lesbian woman to get married to, to resolves the issue of managing his parents’ expectations. From there he hopes to continue living his life as he desires. “I could even get a fake marriage certificate off Taobao,” he says jokingly, referring to China’s equivalent of eBay.
Estimates have put the percentage of gay men in heterosexual marriages in China at around 80 per cent of the gay population, according to many experts, including sociologist and LGBT activist Li Yinhe. While the reality is transparent within some of these marriages, many men hide the fact they are gay from their spouse. This fact is also suggested anecdotally: many friends of mine say they know middle-aged men who are married and yet have revealed that they are gay; one of my female friends even thinks her own father is gay.
Antipathy towards gay offspring is fed by the traditional Chinese view that the greatest sin a child can commit is never producing offspring.
Cai Xu, a 28-year-old editor with a Chinese television channel, tells me that he has decided he will tell his parents he is gay. “They probably don’t even know what gay is,” says Cai who said that homosexuality is unknown in the village he’s from.
Living in the capital, Danny almost never feels social prejudice as a gay man. But when censors recently banned a same-sex drama Addicted from television it really struck a nerve. “It’s really important that these shows are made because it’s the only way parents like mine will ever be exposed to homosexuality, even if passively,” he says.
Cai’s mother, like countless women her age, has already expressed a keen desire “to hold a grandson,” as the saying goes. The realisation that this will never happen can be painful, if not unacceptable. “Maybe more networks of mothers of gay children, like the one in Shanghai, will make it possible for parents to come to terms with the reality,” says Cai. Traditional notions aren’t going away anytime soon: getting help from other families with gay children is perhaps how parents will get there for now.