Being gay in China

Matt | Gay in China | Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

A reader recently asked a few questions about being gay in China.

I’m interested in teaching English in China. But I have a very important question. I’m hoping you can give me some insight, and I think your readers may also be interested in the topic.

I am a gay male from the US. What is China like in terms of gay rights and tolerance? How are gay males viewed? Is it considered inappropriate for a gay male to teach children, as is the case in conservative areas of the US? Do cities like Beijing and Shanghai have an active gay scene? Should I avoid teaching in smaller towns and aim for a bigger, more modern city?

I know that since 2001 it is no longer considered a “mental illness”, but I was wondering if you could shed some light on this.

I think the Chinese culture is conservative in a lot of ways and unfortunately, concerning gay rights I think it is extremely conservative. In this regard, I feel it is similar to how North America likely was back in the ‘50s: things happened, but they were not discussed openly. China is changing rapidly, but sexual tolerance seems to be changing at a slower pace. A positive sign of change is that if you look at any guide book, such as Lonely Planet, you will likely find a “Gay/Lesbian Bars” section in some of the larger cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai.

To answer your specific questions, here is what I know and I hope it is of some help. As for gay rights, I don’t know if there are any in China, I would guess not.  There doesn’t seem to be much mentioned on the news on in the papers concerning this topic.  As for how people are viewed, gay males seem to be viewed negatively at least by the general public. It is not uncommon to hear people pointing out an effeminately-dressed man on the subway and saying, “He’s a gay.” Although, there do appear to be more openly gay young people and this I take as a positive sign.

Interestingly, I find Chinese men are more effeminate than Canadian men and are more comfortable with physical touch, so it is extremely difficult for me to notice if such men are showing signs of intimacy or if they are simply close friends.  For example, when my family came over for my wedding last summer my wife’s cousin “Kobe” held my brother’s hand as a sign of close friendship.  Fortunately, I had mentioned this to my brother beforehand and he was okay with the situation.  Shortly after, my wife mentioned to her cousin that this behaviour, male adults holding hands, was not common for Canadians and he stopped.

Concerning an active gay scene, again, I think the guide books or local expat magazines, such as The Beijinger, would provide more current information. I would think that the larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai would have a more active scene, would have more foreigners and would have a more comfortable environment than other cities. For these reasons, I think teaching and living in a larger city may be a better place to start.

Concerning teaching in China and being openly gay or lesbian, this is difficult. From my perspective as a straight male teacher, I think the attitude and culture in China would make it very challenging for someone to teach or work there and be openly gay. Sadly, I think most Chinese parents would be uncomfortable with this situation and would not send their children to that school. Because of this I would recommend keeping your sexual interests private if you want to teach in China.

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