Gay in Beijing5 min read

Notes from the rainbow underground – Julien

Somehow, someway, I became the only foreigner to join Purple, the officially “unofficial” LGBTQ organization of Tsinghua University and the greater Wudaokou area. To commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on May 17, Purple planned to hand out rainbow flags in front of the main cafeteria on campus. When IDAHO came, the event lasted less than five minutes before students were escorted away by campus security. I watched the flood of messages in our WeChat group as people scurried to come up with a Plan B. Yet no one felt the shut-down of Plan A was out of the ordinary. In fact, it was expected.

Pride in the hutong.

Feelings in Beijing’s gay community were running high after two recent events, each simultaneously a setback and a victory. The first occurred in March, when Weibo announced it was “cleaning up” gay content, sparking a viral backlash against the platform for discrimination. The second happened only a week or so before Flaggate when, in the seemingly progressive 798 Art Zone, a female volunteer was beaten to the ground by an on-duty security officer for handing out rainbow pins.

As a gay American studying in Beijing, coming in contact with the gay community in China was at once shocking, eye-opening, and, at times, deeply saddening. On the one hand, I was inspired by the underground, everyday activism of students, community leaders and individuals who adroitly navigated through the social currents to get  their message out. On the other hand, I was crestfallen to hear the stories of men and women living struggling to be true to their identity while mitigating the risks of social ostracization.

Take my friend Guoqiang. Approaching 31, Guoqiang’s parents had been begging him for ten-plus years to start a family already. As Guoqiang and I sat on the plaza outside the gates of Tsinghua University one balmy fall night, drinking Coronas we had bought at the nearby 7-Eleven, Guoqiang told me that he was thinking of getting married to a girl. He hadn’t really had luck finding a guy in Beijing, and he just wanted a more traditional life. I asked him if he was out to his parents. Of course not, he wasn’t. They wouldn’t be able to accept it. He asked me if I know any lesbians that might want to marry him.

In a xinghun, or “marriage of appearances,” a gay man and a lesbian get married, with an open agreement to do whatever they want on the side. This shelters the “couple” from societal pressures, allows them access to social security and other benefits afforded to straight couples, and provides a bit of normalcy in a country where conversion therapy is still commonplace. Mainly, xinghun provides eager mothers and fathers the grandchildren they so desperately want. I happened to be single and dating in Beijing, which gave me the opportunity to really delve into the heart of gay life in China. But also proved to be a bit of a wild ride in terms of the language barrier, cultural differences, and especially expectations.

At home in the US, I think, people generally follow their hearts when they date. Do I like the other person? How does he make me feel? Of course, everyone has their own list of desired attributes to check off: age, height, weight, employment, background, etc. But in Beijing, dating felt to me more like a business deal than a romantic endeavor. Either you are friends or you are on the precipice of getting married. Casual dating isn’t really a thing, in my experience.

Most of gay life in China takes place online. Two apps, Blued and Grindr, were my portals into this world. Perhaps, since gay men in China have been so marginalized, these online spaces offer safe havens.

Eventually, I had to delete Blued, because, honestly, I couldn’t handle the influx of information. On the platform, a location-based service similar to Grindr, most men hide their true identity. Instead of the normal torso or face pics, most of the profile pictures on Blued were cartoon characters or flowers. Many, many, many men wouldn’t  reveal their true identity to me, out of fear of their picture somehow making its way back to their friends’ co-workers. Even after we had chatted for a while, some never wanted to de-mask themselves. It was frustrating. One can only have so many semi-romantic conversations with Peppa Pig.

Dining for Diversity supports the non-profit Beijing Gender.

This wasn’t always the case. I was lucky to meet some wonderful guys and swap stories of our upbringings over steamed dumplings and fried green beans. There were also some bright spots in terms of gay activism and grassroots organizing, propelled by the vibrant ex-pat scene in Beijing. There’s the Gaymazing race, a beer crawl through the hutong to raise money for the LGTBQ Center in Beijing; Dining for Diversity, a host-your-own-wine-party to support the LGBT organization Beijing Gender; and the Color Run, a 5k where the participants dash through clouds of colorful powder in support of equality. Yet, more often than not, these were under-the-radar, hushed events. The details might not be revealed until the day of. While local Chinese did participate, a greater number of the core organizers and volunteers were foreigners.

To be gay in China is both exciting and nerve-racking. It is to exist as a perpetual other, engaged in a fight for liberty that feels both futile and empowering. My hope for the future that more powerful and strong gay voices can emerge from the mainland. I remember going to the Pride parade in Taipei, Taiwan, one of the first East Asian countries to enact marriage equality, and being touched by the show of support, comradery, and advocacy by the LGBTQ community, many of who had flown from Singapore, Hong Kong or Indonesia to wave their rainbow flags.

As China grows, economically and culturally, I can envision a day in the future where gay men and women are accepted for who they are and in what they believe. China’s young and digital generation is especially well-plugged in and more and more open-minded, and, from spending this past year talking with them and sharing stories, I have hope for the world that they can help create. But for now, things continue to exist, online or underground. ∎

All images courtesy the author.