Shanghai Shows Openness to China's Gays

by Trilok Kapur on  March 15, 2010 at 5:17 PM Lifestyle News
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Dozens of men slow dance to a ballad, in a shabby hall in a working-class area of Shanghai, enjoying a few hours in the company of other homosexuals before going home-- many to their wives.

Every weekend evening, men of all ages pay seven yuan (one dollar) to waltz, rumba and be themselves -- no small feat in China, where homosexuals still face crushing social and familial pressure.

"If you're gay and people find out in my hometown, everything is over," said Leon, a 28-year-old tour guide from the eastern province of Anhui who has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, is married and has a boyfriend on the side.

"But in Shanghai, there are a lot of people like us and places like this -- it's a good city for us."

Homosexuality has long been a sensitive issue in China, where it was officially considered a mental disorder until 2001, but experts and gays say there has been marked improvement.

"In the past, even in the early 2000s, gay bars in normal cities would often be subject to police interference," said Zhang Beichuan, a Qingdao University professor and an expert on homosexuality.

"Now the situation has changed... One can do lots of things more openly."

Shanghai is considered by some as the 'gay capital' of China, boasting trendy bars, clubs and even sport teams such as swimming and volleyball squads for homosexuals.

The city also discreetly hosted the nation's first gay pride festival last June. Although authorities cancelled some events, they allowed most to go ahead.

Other cities in China are also opening up. A government-backed gay bar opened in December in Dali, a tourist town in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Experts estimate there are about 30 million gays and lesbians in China -- which would be just 2.3 percent of the population. Observers concede the number could be higher as many still refuse to come out.

Back at the Lailai dance hall, as couples waltz on lino flooring under flashing green and red lights and tinsel, Ma Qun sits, quietly watching.

The 75-year-old says he never married but also never dared find a boyfriend either, growing up as he did at a time when no one in the country even admitted homosexuality existed.

"Now, though, there is no more pressure in my heart," he said with a smile.

Experts say Chinese people's acceptance of homosexuality has increased thanks to the work done by non-governmental organisations, the media, some schools and the Internet to raise awareness and understanding.

However, many are still unable to accept it, particularly in smaller cities and in the countryside.

"The main reason lies in the fact that China really cares about continuing the ancestral line," said sexologist Li Yinhe, noting the impact of the country's one-child policy.

"If you don't procreate, then the family will have no descendants. In China, the term 'juehu' (without descendants) is actually a swear word."

Acknowledging this concern, some gays and lesbians in China are marrying each other to satisfy their parents' demands.

One Shanghai bar even hosts 'matchmaking' sessions for gays and lesbians to meet with a view to tying the knot, said Kenneth Tan, spokesman for Shanghai LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender).

And while China is mainly devoid of any religious influence that could lead to anti-gay discrimination, homosexuality is still not entirely accepted politically.

In January, police cancelled the nation's first Mr Gay China beauty pageant in Beijing after it had attracted weeks of coverage both in foreign and domestic media.

For Leon, family pressure is why he married his classmate and had a daughter, now two. He says his wife is unaware of his sexual preference.

"Sometimes I feel a little sorry for my wife but how can I make up for it now? I can only support her with money and give her the best life possible," he said.

The government has warned that homosexual transmission of HIV/AIDS is gaining pace, and people like Leon are causing particular worries in China.

"We are concerned with the gays born in the 1970s and 80s, who were forced to marry straight women or are going to marry them," said Simon Tang of the Chi Heng Foundation, an AIDS prevention charity.

"They are sexually active and thus a much more dangerous group to transmit HIV/AIDS to their wives."

Experts say the Chinese government has invested heavily in AIDS prevention work in the gay community, but they add that anti-discrimination laws are sorely lacking.

In Shanghai, Ma refused to reflect on a difficult past, and looked instead to the future.

"I'm old, and I'm just satisfied that people can now come out and talk about it," he said.

Source: AFP

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