Not Disapproved - Not Promoted
I have never considered myself a particularly active member of the GLBT community. This past year in China, that all changed. When I first moved to the People’s Republic, I resided in a suburb of Hangzhou. The lack of homosexuals around me appeared synonymous with the lack of foreigners. For the first few weeks, the adventure was sublime. I ate noodles, played basketball with local kids, taught dance lessons, and enjoyed a lifestyle without mention of RuPaul, Donna Summers, or the political endeavors of Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox. Then it started.
I was not actively searching for gays, but what appeared to be an absence of them, began to subtly grate on my psyche. I attempted to download Grindr, but it wouldn’t install properly on my phone. Every adult man that I met had a girlfriend or wife and a few of my brave inquiries were met with a laugh and a shaking of the head. “We don’t do that around here,” said a neighbor of mine. She had to be wrong. Naturally, I understood that I was living in a culture where GLBT culture would slide under the radar, but I was starting to get anxious. Six weeks passed, and I hadn’t met a gay.
I became obsessed with the hunt. I would over interpret eye contact, fixate on body language, and ask every liberal foreigner I met if they’d seen or met any men who like men. After six weeks without a fruit in the basket, I took to the internet. An out of date website forum spoke of a gay bar named Jundu near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I translated the directions to the best of my ability, but finding that bar was impossible. I asked a few locals for help in my rough and tumble Mandarin, but as far as most were concerned, it didn’t exist. After wandering in circles for an hour, I gave up and went home.
I couldn’t help but find the irony in my situation. Two months prior I had been sitting at a coffee shop in Manhattan, complaining to a friend about how much I hated walking past all the amped up gay bars in Chelsea. Two months later I’d have just about sold my dog just to traipse into any one of those sordid Chelsea establishments. It wasn’t that I wanted to date. More than anything I just wanted an acquaintance to share inside jokes with, someone that could fully understand the hapless luck of the homosexual’s disposition in China.
I soon moved into a new apartment that was much closer to downtown. The day I moved in, I discovered a Chinese smartphone dating app called “Hornet” that worked on my phone. The users were mostly Chinese, a few older foreigners, but in both cases, there appeared to be a pretty rough language barrier. I eventually managed to meet at a restaurant in the shopping district with a 23-year old named Chen. As the Creative Director of a mobile game company, Chen has a very busy social life. His circle of friends was large and his circle of business acquaintances was even larger. He has a beautiful office on the edge of one of Hangzhou’s mountains. Its lofted ceiling and large windows make for an inviting environment to Chen’s five employees. Chen works hard, often staying at the office until ten at night. He feels a great sense of responsibility for his games and his employees.
Chen’s parents live in a rural town hours from the city. In addition to being deep in the closet, much of his lifestyle is inaccessible to them. Though he’s quick to express his undying affection toward his mother, Chen described his relationship with both parents as an inexhaustible questioning of “Are you making money?” and “Do you have a wife, yet?” Chen became one of my closest friends in China. His ambition was an inspiration to me and I found myself particularly forlorn to discover how unsupportive his family was.
The day I met my flamboyant neighbor Todd at my new apartment was a tremendous victory. Todd was a British twenty something working in China as an English teacher. It was through Todd that I was introduced to Hangzhou’s small exclusive gang of homosexual foreigners. It was also through that group that I managed to find the Jundu bar that eluded me as well as another GLBT hangout called Deeper. (Yes, I know, it’s quite a name.)
Jundu and Deeper were dimly lit. While it’s not out of character for a bar to have low lighting, the unanimous extreme of such ambiance might suggest a focus on anonymity. These venues are clearly important places for the patrons inside. In the city of Hangzhou there are only two gay bars for a population of two and a half million. While social stigmas towards homosexuality have improved between small groups of friends, being open about ones gayness at work, family gatherings, or community events is strictly forbidden.
As weeks turned into months, my circle of friends grew larger, as did my awareness of China’s GLBT community. A friend of mine named Wizard worked in the creative industry as a photo assistant. He is one of the lucky few whose working environment and big city lifestyle allow him to speak more liberally about his sexuality, though Wizard still stays closeted whenever visiting home. “All of my friends in Hangzhou know my sexuality, but back home… two of my teachers and that’s it. One of my teachers figured it out. People can tell it, if you’re really close,” he shared. An aspiring photographer, Wizard’s family pressures him to move back home and get a more stable job on the regular. Obviously, this would be misery on two fronts. As primitive as I felt Jundu to be, the more I spoke with Wizard and Chen, the more I realized how lucky we were to have even one meeting space for gays.
“I’ll probably marry a lesbian,” Chen said. These lesbian/gay man partnerships have become an increasingly popular way to cope with family pressure. While this fate may fall upon Chen, Wizard would have none of it. “I couldn’t do that,” he shared, “Some of my friends did it and it just got ridiculous. Usually one lives in a separate apartment, but then they are running over and jumping through a back window to maintain the lie when parents come to visit.” Though homosexuals have been suffering through double lives throughout history, it was still hard for me to wrap my head around the plausibility of a sham wedding in today’s world. That was, until the wedding I went to.
It’s not like we were lovers or even best friends, but it was hard to watch the ceremony. The couple seemed well matched on paper. Both came from affluent families, both were Shanghai grown, and had a similarly comedic personalities… much like a Will & Grace. Having never been to a Chinese wedding, when my co-worker Ling extended the invitation, I couldn’t say no. Ling had never explicitly said it was a sham wedding, but his inclination for cuddling with members of the same sex was truth without words.
The wedding was by all accounts, beautiful. Regardless of Ling’s personal preferences, it was obvious that he was fond of his bride and excited about the next chapter of his life. This six hour ordeal began with a well attended ceremony, followed by an endless receiving line, and ended with the packing of two hundred people into a ballroom set up for dinner. Much like an American wedding, the mothers and fathers of the couple ran rampant, directing, scheming, and schmoozing. It was obvious that the event was just as much for them as anyone else. On a shuttle transport from the wedding reception to the hotel, Ling left his bride in the front seat to cuddle up next to me in the back. It had been an intense day.
Though there are still clinics in China that claim to cure homosexuality with electro shock therapy and hypnosis, there is definitely change afoot. The official government of China has adopted a three-part approach to the subject: Not Approved, Not Disapproved, and Not Promoted. Some time has passed since a GLBT hangout has been “busted” in China and as a government that maintains a true separation of church and state, some academics theorize that China will quickly approve gay marriage as soon they see its economic benefit.
In more recent news, the UK Telegraph reported “a British diplomat has become a gay icon in China after marrying his American partner on the lawn of the ambassador's residence in Beijing.” Although the wedding wasn’t legal under Chinese law, its wide publicity sent a good message to China’s bourgeoning GLTB community. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, transgender choreographer Jin Xing has become a popular television personality as a judge on one of China’s beloved X-Factor-like reality shows.
During my ten months between Hangzhou and Shanghai in China, there were many times I felt outraged with the state of things for the gays. This injustice was impossible to ignore, but the Chinese people’s naivety to the gay lifestyle was not all bad. A silver lining to the absence of openly gay men is the dually noted absence of homophobia. Male friends are comfortable being affectionate with each other and our brutish western notions of masculinity are not as embedded in the Chinese culture. In China, men who paint or dance instead of sport are seen as intellectuals, not pansies. This is not a victory for the GLBT community specifically, but a healthier side of their social culture in general. It will be interesting to see how views may change as a GLBT community takes more prominence in China over the next ten years. For my friends Chen, Wizard, and Ling, change couldn’t come soon enough.
Images Daniel Rampulla & Jesse Draxler
Special Thanks Cassie Schauwitzer