A rainbow anniversary: On the paradoxes of lesbian and gay life in contemporary China

11. Oct 2009

Elisabeth L. Engebretsen


Watching television images of the Chinese 60th anniversary celebrations on 1 October, I was struck by the prominently displayed rainbow color people-formations on Chang’an Avenue – the very heart of Chinese political governance. The intended, official meanings of the rainbow theme undoubtedly were those of common themes related to the Community Party’s rhetoric of nationalist hope, purity, and yearning for progress and development; and thereby providing a visual support for slogans such as “Socialism is good”, “Develop Science and Technology,” and so on. But, the rainbow flag is moreover known worldwide to symbolize lesbian and gay (‘lgbtq’ henceforth)[i] pride. Over the course of the last decades, concurring with increased economic and cultural globalization, the rainbow flag has taken on a somewhat globally recognized symbolic and political meaning for lbgtq people and communities in numerous non-Western locations, where homosexuality tends to remain at least sensitive and taboo, if not illegal.

This is also the case in mainland China. Yet, the current status and situation of lgbtq communities there are far from a clear-cut situation of repression and exclusion, as many would readily believe based on the autocratic political regime and innumerable media reports of (usually ethnic) minority repression and surveillance. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and delisted as a mental disorder in 2001. Still, lgbtq people have no legal protection, suffer homophobia by employers and family, and activists experience periodically intense persecution and surveillance in accordance with macro-level political priorities to ensure ‘harmony’ and ‘stability’ at crucial times – such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the recent Uighur and Tibetan unrest, and the current 60th Anniversary celebrations this month. Based on little independent, unbiased research of homosexuality as a social (not medical) phenomenon, titillating, sensationalist media reporting, and popular yet traditional folk ideologies, homosexuality is invariably considered immoral, an illness a par with cancer, synonymous with AIDS, abnormal, and un-Chinese.

Due to this situation, few lgbtq Chinese ‘come out’ (i.e. explicitly declare sexual identity) or live openly in same-sex relationships. Most seek a tacit, complicit strategy of, on the one hand, adhering to normative expectation at ‘face’ value, whilst engaging in relationships and communities of their preference in a kind of un-declared, semi-public/private personal life on the other. However, this pervasive difficulty has not prevented a vocal and diverse lgbtq community to emerge; in fact, it has probably enabled and, certainly, fuelled it. Starting in the mid-1990s, social and activist networks have developed in several large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Dalian, and Kunming. The introduction of and popular access to the Internet and personal cell phones contribute enormously to the general establishment of a semi-private, public sphere in Chinese society, with the potential for alternative expressions and life styles. Combined with the relative decrease in governmental direct control of everyday life, for lgbtq people this change has meant the ability to establish longer-term community projects to raise consciousness,  produce validating and self-affirming positive knowledge such as documentary films, magazines, and oral histories. Outside NGOs, especially from Taiwan and Hong Kong – two culturally and linguistically Chinese societies – provide long-standing experience in aspects of lgbtq activist concerns.

This seeming paradox of official constraints and alternative possibilities are increasingly being played out in the Chinese media public, thanks to bolder, more pronounced initiatives taken by some lgbtq networks. To cite an example, on Valentine’s Day these three last years, Beijing lgbtq activists and supporters have organized same-sex marriage campaigns in downtown Beijing to draw the public’s attention to same-sex love and identity in general, and the inequality in current marriage legislation in particular.[ii] This year, the campaign took place at the opposite end of Tiananmen, where the rainbow colors where displayed for rather different reasons on October 1. In the popular tourist and shopping area of Qianmen, two gay men and two lesbian women posed as brides-to-be and grooms-to-be, dressed in white gowns and black tuxedos, respectively. Local and foreign media covered this unusual and rather bold event, and activists documented the proceedings with film cameras.[iii] Other activists distributed red flowers to passer-bys, to which they attached leaflets advocating equal rights to marry for all, and noting that lgbtq people are “just like regular folks.” One long-time lesbian activist in Beijing noted in conversation with me this summer that the marriage focus should not be read the same way that gay marriage campaigning in Western societies are. Whilst gay marriage in the West has turned into the seminal yardstick for determining lgbtq equality and a society’s progressive attitude to sexuality, same-sex marriage works politically quite differently in the Chinese context, more like a eye-catching means to a more basic end already achieved, more or less, in North-Western Europe. In China, marriage is an institution everybody knows and deals with, due to the consistent cultural imperative to marry. It is therefore used symbolically by lgbtq activists to advocate not simply and primarily equality, but more importantly, advocate the basic shared humanity of Chinese lgbtqs with the general, heterosexual population, in wanting romantic love, relationships ‘till death do us apart’, and ‘simply’, stable, normal lives.

The paradox remains that the popular media and the blogosphere allow for increasing representations of ‘gay’ issues as basically about lifestyle, fuelled by three decades of open and reform policy’s acceptance of consumerism and material wealth as primary indexer of the ‘good life’. A lifestyle focus, in turn, ensures a categorical divorce from the sensitive political domain; thus, any activist efforts that remotely resemble political rhetoric or public unrest carry risk for authorities’ surveillance and closure, and worse. This summer, a local tongzhi centre in Beijing was shut down, any lgbtq event will still be visited by police and public security officials demanding paper-work, identity cards, etc. Local activists exhibit remarkable humor, stoicism, and creativity in their dealings with these officials. In a society where alternative approaches to sensitive topics and ways of life are deemed to be political destabilizers and potential threats to Party governance, it is likely that these versatile, brave activist strategies must proceed for quite some time in years to come.



The author:

Dr Elisabeth L. Engebretsen is a social anthropologist specializing on gender, sexuality, subjectivity and identity, and social change in PR China. She is currently Faculty Lecturer at McGill University’s Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. More information at: http://www.mcgill.ca/igsf/faculty/






[i] I use ‘lgbtq’ to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer, in an attempt to recognize the difficulty, and impossibility, of fixing sexual identity categories. Note however, that commonly used categories in Mainland China include lala (a collective identity category used by women who love women), T/P (tomboy/po “wife”, a Chinese version of masculine butch and feminine femme roles), tongzhi (meaning “comrade”, gender neutral), tongxinglianzhe (“ho
mosexual”, a direct Chinese translation of the English term). In addition, there are numerous slang words and terminologies.

[ii] Chinese law does not recognize same-gender marriage as valid, but neither does it specify the opposite-gender implication of current legal code.

[iii] A documentary film has since been made by the China Queer Independent Film Group, titled “New Beijing, New Marriage” (Xin Beijing, Xin Hunyin) (2009, 20 mins., Fan Popo, David Zheng). It specifically documents this event.