Traditionally, Chinese society takes a dim but not completely negative view of homosexuality. The begetting of children, particularly sons, is a duty of a good Chinese man; this is reinforced by Confucian and Taoist teachings. So traditional morality in China takes a generally dim view of homosexuality; even cross-dressing can be considered morally unacceptable because it disrupts and challenges traditional gender roles in society at large. However, it should also be noted that homosexual acts are not “sins” in Confucianism or Taoism they way they are in the western monotheistic traditions; they are rather considered diversions from more productive or dutiful sorts of tasks. A man engaged in sex with another man could be having sex with his wife to father children, and therefore his neglect of his duty is the same as if he had been gambling or drinking too much.
I should also note that there is a substantial tradition of same-sex love in ancient Chinese literature and some scholars have suggested that homosexual acts for recreational sex were condoned in the Imperial court during the Han, Song, Quin and Ming dynasties. To that extent, homosexual affairs were sometimes seen as fashionable and elite sorts of activities, and one can imagine that as with all people, everywhere and at all times in history, when elites engage in a particular kind of behavior, some of the people below the the elites in social status will emulate them as a form of aspirational behavior.
In modern China, these traditional attitudes sharpened to a significant degree after the Cultural Revolution in 1949. For thirty years, homosexuality was outlawed and people who were openly homosexual were rounded up and sent to psychiatric treatment clinics where they were supposed to be “cured” but instead subjected to a variety of extraordinarily cruel and sometimes violent forms of aversion therapy.*
In recent years, the situation has materially improved and this is an area in which some genuine credit must be given to the PRC’s government. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1999 and the reprogramming clinics were all shut down in 2001 when the government removed homosexuality from its list of recognized mental disorders. Gay pride parades have been permitted and gay-bashing is rare. It seems that younger generations of Chinese are tolerant of homosexuality, at least in the abstract.
However, state-run media outlets routinely censor any kind of entertainment or film coverage depicting homosexuals, whether in a good or bad light. Popular movies, like Brokeback Mountain, are not shown (openly) in China, although it seems possible for a consumer there to get a DVD of such things illegally. (There was great interest in Brokeback Mountain because the director, Ang Lee, is a world-renowned filmmaker of Chinese ancestry who also directed the immensely popular Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). A popular story of two men struggling against official and social condemnation of their love, Lan Yu, was filmed in Taiwan but possession of a copy of the movie will earn the owner a substantial fine and, of course, confiscation of the contraband film.
There is still generational tension and attitudes about homosexuality are far from uniform. In that sense, China seems to be not unlike the rest of the industrialized world — speaking very generally, the older generations take a dimmer view of it and individuals’ tolerance varies widely. At first blush, it seems that gays in China face similar sorts of social pressures to remain closeted or to come out as they do in America or Europe. However, some activists complain that the social pressures in China are much stronger than in other industrialized countries, and therefore a large number of people remain closeted, even to the point of having heterosexual marriages to conceal their true preferences. It is hard to say to what degree that is true, since closeting of this degree inherently involves people who do not want to be identified.
The judicial system in China appears to be lagging behind evolving social attitudes about homosexuality. Some local law enforcement officers continue to harass homosexuals and in parts of China, particularly in rural areas, gay people continue to risk arrest for associating with one another or failing to conceal their identities. Gay rights activists claim that gay people convicted of crimes receive harsher sentences than straight people convicted of similar crimes. In October 1999, a court in Beijing issued an opinion condemning homosexuality as “abnormal and unacceptable to the Chinese public,” and this opinion was allowed to stand on appeal to the People’s Supreme Court.
AIDS and HIV have only very recently been recognized as significant health problems in China, and the government has been quick to identify “men having sex with men” as both at heightened risk for the disease and as vectors for its transmission. Although initially slow to react to the arrival and spread of the disease, the government is now taking action to provide education, distribute condoms, and treat those afflicted with the virus.
Gays certainly aren’t going to get married any time soon; gay marriage legislation has been introduced and roundly thrown out of the National People’s Congress twice, in 2001 and 2003, and the National People’s Congress has shown no interest in revisiting the issue since. Being openly homosexual is also still grounds to deny a Chinese person the ability to adopt a child.
Hong Kong and Macau are a little bit different. Homosexuality seems to be well-tolerated in Macau and there have not been official laws against it since the Portuguese yielded administration of the “Las Vegas of China” to the PRC. Hong Kong had anti-sodomy laws until 1991, with punishments ranging up to life imprisonment, but the laws were almost never enforced and were taken off the books in 2005 by a prominent court case.
I started researching this subject thinking that I would wind up with another roundhouse condemnation of the PRC government, but I cannot justify such a thing. The government of China seems to be much more ambivalent than that and to some extent, the official policies of nondiscrimination and equal treatment appear to be both facially similar to those that prevail in some portions of the United States, and they appear to be treated with similar gravity by some — not all — government officials. Others seem to hold on to traditional prejudices against homosexuality, but again, I can’t sit here in modern America and say the Chinese are necessarily any worse or even on balance very different from my own society in that regard.
It may be that there is a very high social pressure to conform to particular norms of behavior that exclude homosexuality, and so gays there feel the need to remain closeted to a degree higher than they do in the US. It seems to be be that traditional condemnation of homosexuality carried over to some official acts and some people exercise whatever power they have to make life hard for homosexuals. There may be more of that in China than there is here, but with the exception of rural cops harassing gays in their communities, on the whole things do not seem to be qualitatively different. Gays here complain about the same sorts of things. There does seem to be more of it in China.
So in answer to the question, what’s it like to be gay in China? The answer seems to be that it sucks to be gay in China. But it sucks to be gay in the US, too. China has relatively escalated social pressure to remain closeted and discreet as compared to the US, so the difference in suckage is one of degree rather than kind.
* Some similar techniques are used in “gay deprogramming therapy” in the U.S. today.