‘A long way to go’: What it’s like being LGBTIQ in China

The first Shanghai Pride. Photo: Kris Krug/Flickr
The first Shanghai Pride. Photo: Kris Krug/Flickr

Homosexuality in China has been documented since ancient times. Despite his marriage to Empress Fu, Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty’s closest relationship was with his male companion Dong Xian.

He bestowed wealth and position on Dong and a devotion so touching it inspired a much-treasured euphemism. One afternoon a messenger arrived with important news while Ai and Dong slept in the Emperor’s quarters.

Dong had fallen asleep across a sleeve of the Emperor’s robe so rather than disturb him, Ai scissored off the sleeve. Hence the poetic phrase, ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’ to describe same-sex love.

Fast forward to today and the situation of LGBTIQ Chinese citizens is mixed.

Homosexuality was legalised in 1997 and declassified as a mental illness in 2001, but most LGBTIQ mainland Chinese remain either closeted or very discreet because of social stigma.

In last four decades China has experienced phenomenal economic growth, but little if any progress on human rights. One-man rule was the norm for centuries in China under the emperors and the communists.

Deng Xiaoping, the third communist dictator, seemed to edge the government toward technocracy but since the rise of President Xi Jinping, government has veered back toward one-man rule.

Of course, dictatorial governments are eternally vigilant for potential challengers, so Beijing is intolerant of any non-party entity with even the merest hint of an agenda. Their attitude to LGBTIQ issues seems to be “don’t encourage, don’t discourage and don’t promote.”

If LGBTIQ people go about their business without showing signs of infringing on party business, they are generally left alone. Gay rights groups have been warned against “incitement.”

Many educated, professional LGBTIQ Chinese are leaving for overseas countries, in search of better incomes and increased freedom. In China, they cannot get married, own a home, obtain pensions benefits and insurance or adopt kids.

They also have concerns about the government’s attitude to non-reproducing citizens will change in light of China’s coming aging crisis.

As a result of the one-child policy China now has a massive population approaching retirement with a much smaller younger working population to support them.

Additionally, LGBTIQ Chinese, like most Chinese, would like the democratic freedoms and human rights available in other countries.

While LGBTIQ people enjoy many more freedoms that people in the 70 countries which still criminalise homosexuality, the country has a long way to go on issues like discrimination, and there is reason to fear there could be a future encroachment on the rights already granted.

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A Muriuki

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