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.

7 Comments »

  1. I’m gay in China and teaching in Hefei, which is a small city by Chinese standards. I definitely keep it private, though Chinese people are so nosy! I moved here half a year ago with my boyfriend, who took a position as a professor at USTC. Unfortunately because of his position, I can’t let anyone find out, or he could lose his job. We have to be very careful here, which I have to say, I hate about living here. I feel like I have gone back in the proverbial closet.

    The topic of gays has come up a few times. One person, a thirty-something woman, expressed disgust of gay people, though she knew many Western people don’t care. The other was a teenager, who told me he thought gay people were weird, though he moved to the U.S. and has a gay friend.

    I also feel China is culturally like the U.S. in the 1950’s, and while there are many gay people in China, everyone pretends there is not. Many straight and gay people will express disgust over gay people, simply because it is expected for them to do so. It’s sad to see gay Chinese having fake weddings, simple to appease their family their family members. I have run into that issue myself with my boyfriend, who is Chinese, having a seeming inability to tell any of his family members.

    On the other hand, in the large cities, and to a smaller extent, the smaller cities, some people are more open-minded. I have seen more than a few gay people in Shanghai, and it feels just like America in many ways. Hopefully China will change it’s ways soon, as there are thirty million more men than women, and even if they aren’t gay, there will be a lot of straight guys getting some help from other guys.

    Comment by David — November 18, 2011 @ 6:26 am

  2. I am a gay American teacher, teaching English in China since 2006. I have to admit that the only outward hostility I’ve encountered here is from other foreign teachers who are homophobic and/or have been sent here by evangelical groups with the express purpose of pushing repressive agendas. In general, you will find that the Chinese don’t much care about others’ sexual orientation one way or the other – unless, that is, you happen to be their son or daughter. I’ve had several openly gay students in my classes, and have even been “outed” a couple of times in class, not in a maligning way but simply “Oh, OK, so now we know. Whatever.” I have to admit, though, that gays and lesbians are completely invisible here, neither condemned nor validated by the government, and unprotected by any anti-discrimination laws. My gay friends are all in the closet; 90% of gay and lesbian Chinese are supposedly in heterosexual marriages. Still, I constantly ask myself, would I rather be invisible (and rather lonely) or live with the open hostility, discrimination, and violence toward people like me in the USA? It’s a tough call. Best of luck.

    Comment by Roger Jones — March 18, 2012 @ 10:08 am

  3. Chinese culture is true relatively conservative, but it will change little by little, I am a student studying in a normal university in China, and I know lots of gays around me, they are nice people.

    Comment by China consulting — July 20, 2012 @ 1:56 am

  4. if anyone is reading this (who is gay) and who is considering going to china, you should think carefully about doing so. Yes, it is ok being gay in big cities like Hong Kong/Beijing/Shanghai, but outside those cities and even in those cities being gay is not so cool.

    believe me i nearly got fired because my boss found out i was gay. And all my workmates when they found out, suddenly started to ignore me and treat me differently. screw them

    I am so happy not to be in china anymore, and will never do the whole living in a backward country thing again.

    I am doing my post grad now back in my home county, have met a nice new bf, fixed my relationship with my family,,,, i am happy.

    if you are gay and want to sort yourself out – like i did, four years ago, do it somewhere else, not china!!!!!!!!

    Comment by ben campbell — December 3, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  5. I spent 6 years in Taiwan. Now of course, they don’t consider themselves a part of China. However, the similarity in what many have said here is very interesting. I worked as a teacher of English for four years. My contract was not renewed after my fourth year. I am sure this is because my superior concluded I was gay. She was always making passes at me and after three years she realized I wasn’t interested and asked me why all my friends were younger males. Someone said Chinese women are very nosy! That is so true! Having worked in education most of my colleagues were women. In our offices many talked constantly and gossiped all day long. No wonder Chinese men don’t listen to their wives or other women. They never shut up! I often wondered if they talked and gossiped during sex?

    My partner has come out to several of his friends, but probably will never come out to his mother and sister. I heard this from other gay people in China! How awful that the group who is supposed to be our closest support system is the last to know who you are, in China! The women in the family control everything! I remember my gay friends in Taiwan talking about their mothers, but hardly ever talked about their fathers.

    Comment by Bob Marquardt — April 15, 2013 @ 7:41 am

  6. I can speak from a lesbian perspective here, my girlfriend and I have been living in a relatively small city in Hunan province for the past year, we’ve kept our relationship secret, the only people who we’re open with are other English teachers. It’s not particularly pleasant to have to modify your behaviour although as there’s two of us it’s been easier and we’ve managed to get some entertainment out of sneaking into each other’s rooms at night and kissing illicitly in the park when it’s dark and no-one’s looking.
    We’re pretty sure one of our Chinese colleague is aware of our relationship as she’s in our rooms often enough to notice that the bed’s only made in one of them for a week at a time but I doubt she’d ever say anything, when the subject of being gay has come up in conversation she’s gone quiet or made a face, (and she’s young – the older teachers would probably be more hostile).
    As we’re of that age where the Chinese expect us to be married and popping out babies we’ve had to defend our desire to get out and see the world rather than be matched with some of their Chinese friends.
    Having said that, I’m aware that a lot of my students are gay, some openly, some not so much. I really feel for the boys, opinion towards male homosexuality seems much harsher. I am pretty sure that attitudes are shifting quickly with the current teenage generation.

    Comment by Eliie — April 18, 2013 @ 8:51 am

  7. I am a gay male teaching English in the Ningxia Province at a university. I, too, was confused at first by the “touching” that occurs sometimes between males here. The first time it happened to me was a handsholding incident. I did not quite know how to take that, but I’ve since learned that some men do that.
    However, I am involved in a friendship right now that has me very confused. Maybe someone here can enlighten me. I came here a year and a half ago. When I went to my very first class, one of my students was already waiting by the classroom door, by himself, anticipating my arrival. He was very friendly and outgoing, and we had a nice conversation before the class started. It seems that the two of us just “clicked”.
    Since then, we have become the best of friends and spend a good deal of time together outside of school. He is no longer my student, so I do not feel it is inappropriate. We enjoy each other’s company and going places and doing things together. Last winter we spent a week traveling together.
    It was a year ago during one of our talks that he said to me, “I love you”. It took me off guard at first, but I figured he meant it from the standpoint of being best friends. But, I now question whether there is more to it than that. I have suspected for some time that perhaps he is gay, but we have never talked about those things with each other. I think perhaps we are both avoiding the subject. Over the time I have known him, I, too, have come to love him. I love him as my best friend, but I have also come to realize that I think I am “in love” with him. Every time we are together he always tells me he loves me.
    He comes from a broken home, his mother abandoned him at 6 months of age. He has not seen her since then. He was raised by a strict grandmother. He has an absentee father who he sees once or twice a year. So, he is someone who needs some love in his life.
    He and I spend much time together. On holidays we go places together and just enjoy being with one another. He is very possessive of me in some ways. He does not want anyone joining us when we are together. He even told me that he does not like to share me. He gets jealous when I have conversations with other students. He does not date girls, although he has mentioned getting married at some point. I suspect that his wanting to get married is more out of family obligation than anything else. I would guess he will not be happy in a marriage.
    What do you think? Am I right to suspect there is more to him than just friendship? I mean, he wants to spend all his free time with me, when we are apart he is in contact regularly by phone and other social media. I suspect perhaps he does have other feelings for me other than just friendship. I am hesitant to discuss this with him as he is shy about personal issues, but right now, I am very confused. I do not think I would pursue anything with him since I do not want to ruin our friendship, but those feelings are there. Thanks for listening. Any comments, I would like to hear them.

    Comment by CJ — August 19, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

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