First published in Between the Lines on June 1, 2006.
I am writing this column at my desk at the Xianlin Hotel at Nanjing Normal University in China, where I am delivering a two-week series of lectures on business ethics. Prior to arriving here I visited Beijing, and in a week I will visit Hong Kong, where I will lecture on homosexuality. Thankfully, Hong Kong is far more receptive to the topic than the mainland: when my hosts in Nanjing proposed that I deliver a lecture on homosexuality, the university administration deemed it “too controversial.”
While homosexual conduct is not technically against the law in China, nor is it legally protected, and gay people are somewhat subject to the whims of local officials. Until 1997 Chinese gays could be prosecuted for “hooliganism,” a somewhat vague charge that was easily open to abuse. Until 2001 China’s psychiatric association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and the perception that gays are sick remains common.
But the main problem facing gay Chinese comes not from police or doctors but from family. Pressure to marry is strong, and most gays choose to remain closeted rather than disappoint their parents. As one student explained to me during a dinner conversation, “One of my friends is homosexy…”
“Homosexual,” I corrected, although I quite like the idea of being homosexy…
“…and it made his mother very sad.”
Another student piped in, “The only thing they can do is move far away. Some of them change their names to avoid disgracing family.”
Mind you, these same students told me that it’s not so bad to be gay in China anymore. “Most people think it’s nobody’s business,” they said, unwittingly touching upon a key aspect of the problem: gay invisibility. The issue is just not on people’s radar here.
Hence the puzzled look I received when I checked into an upscale Western hotel in Beijing and reassured the desk clerk–twice–that my partner and I only wanted one bed in the room.
Hence the fact that my students – whom I intend to come out to before leaving – have absolutely no clue that I’m gay. Despite the fact that I arrived with my partner. Despite the fact that I was introduced at my first lecture (with generous hyperbole) as a “great American expert on homosexuality.” Despite the fact that I keep asking them questions about being gay here.
More generally, I am struck by these students lack of maturity on sexual issues. Most of them are graduate students, with an average age of about 25. Yet they giggled through much of my lecture on sexual harassment.
At times I’ve just wanted to blurt out “I’m gay!” During one dinner one of my female students grinned when she saw me use my chopsticks. “Chinese say, when you hold chopsticks at far end you marry girl far away; when you hold chopsticks at near end you marry girl close by. You hold chopsticks in center – is good!”
I thought about switching my chopsticks to my left hand, but I’m quite certain that the point would have been much too subtle, even coming from the great American expert on homosexuality.
There are some slow signs of progress: the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, China’s first undergraduate gay-studies course at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in 2005, and a gay cultural festival organized in Beijing last December. The festival, sadly, was shut down by police, a sign that the country still has a long way to go. It is also worth noting that my research on this column was hampered by limited access to certain Web sites. This is not yet a free country in the sense most Americans understand the term.
A couple of other striking things about China: it is not at all uncommon to see young men walking together with their arms draped around each other, in a manner typical of heterosexual lovebirds in the U.S. Here it’s considered a sign of “brotherhood.” It’s hard for me not to stare when they do this, although they stare at me for being white, so I guess we’re even. (Remember that for decades China was largely closed to foreigners.)
Nor is it uncommon, apparently, for heterosexual males to remark on other males’ good looks. One taxi driver told our student interpreters several times that he thought my partner Mark was handsome. (Can you imagine this from an American cab driver?) Several male students have said the same to me.
“I’m not handsome,” I want to respond. “I’m homosexy!”