Officially speaking, it is perfectly legal to be gay in China.
The Mainland's controversial "Hooliganism" laws - which were used to censure homosexuals - were stripped from the statutes in 1997, and in 2001 laws classifying homosexuality as a mental illness were likewise removed.
China now has a "gay scene". Most large cities have gay bars, some even have entire gay districts.
This isn't to say that there isn't a certain level of intolerance from leaders, or that there aren't homophobic incidents, and China still has a long way to go before gay rights can be said to be on a par with more liberal regions such as Europe (China, for example, does not permit gay marriage).
Things aren't perfect, but for the most part there is a live and let live attitude towards homosexuality from the state. With most officials choosing not to comment on the subject. Offering neither approval nor disapproval under the auspices of there being “no gay Chinese, and no straight Chinese, just Chinese”.
However, while it is now rare for a Chinese homosexual to be persecuted by Beijing for being gay, there have been multiple incidents in China's gay community has been caught up in the crossfire between the state and those who speak out against the state. Causing them to become collateral damage in a war that they are not fighting.
While Beijing is not officially cracking down on homosexuality, many gay Chinese have found themselves caught up in other state crackdowns - Particularly those against political dissidents and looks set to get caught up in many more into the future as Beijing wages war on those who would criticize or defy it.
One of the most common causes of conflict between Beijing and gay groups is Beijing's long standing policy that it is the highest authority in China, and that it be the primary arbitrator on social and cultural matters.
Under this policy Beijing routinely cracks down on any and all groups that gain any realistic following, but which do not originate from the state. This is typically done regardless of the groups actual motivations, and regardless of the cause that they are supporting, due to official fears that:
- That a group or cause may gain sufficient momentum for it to become impossible to control. Possibly to the extent that may one day become strong enough to allow it to influence state policy rather than be directed by it
- That a leader/leaders may emerge from a group or cause who might one day challenge the power of the state. Even if they are not currently doing so
- That the presence of any causes or movement outside the remit of the state may encourage other causes or movements to arise, including those which may go against the state, even if the group is not in itself challenging the power of the state
Many groups currently operate under Beijing's radar, and are too small to really come to the attention of authorities. Others have come to an understanding with authorities that allow them to operate within the system on the understanding that they are subordinate to Beijing on all matter.
Yet, Others have been met with a hostile response from suspicious leaders who see them as being a threat, because they are an organized group.
According to some China watcher those who have met with the most hostility from official have been those with backing from intellectuals and academics, as well as those seeking to launch awareness campaigns on issues such as sexual health and the need to fight discrimination.
China watchers state that these groups are targeted by official more often than groups that, for example, act primarily as social clubs, because they have are seeking to change attitudes and to change the status quo - which Beijing believes falls exclusively within its own remit - and because Beijing has long insisted that intellectuals serve the people through the state rather than directly. So that Beijing can maintain a tight grip on the flow of knowledge, and can ensure that it is "received in the correct way". A euphemism for ensuring that embarrassing things are buried while beneficial things are highlighted.
Additionally, some China watchers have stated that the involvement of intellectuals and academics in the gay rights movement scares local leaders because they know little about homosexuality themselves, and they fear the loss of face that would come if said academics and intellectuals revealed failings in their administrations relating to gay issues. Or if they show up their own levels of ignorance on the subject.
One of the more infamous incidents gay rights groups being caught up Beijing's war against organized groups was the forced closure of a gay cultural event in Beijing's Dashanzi artist district in 2005.
The On/Off Incident?
In December 2005 state security forces raider the On/Off bar in Beijing, hours before the opening of what was supposed to be a cultural and educational event organized by the local homosexual community.
The event, originally scheduled to last for 3 days, was billed as being non political celebration of China's gay community.
Officially the event was terminated because local leaders said that it lacked the proper safety certification, however, China watchers noted that the On/Off bar was also due to host several speeches and workshops by noted scholars and gay interest groups discussing the issues surrounding homosexuality in modern China. Some of whom would have criticized the state for failing to protect the gay community form discrimination, and for failing to dedicate resources to deal with gay issues.
Both of which could have proved highly embarrassing to local leaders whom maintain that Beijing authorities do all that they can to fight discrimination and to ensure fairness for all of China's people.
The event was originally scheduled to take place in Factory 798, a well venue in the Dashanzi artist district, but was forced to relocate to the On/Off bar after state security forces after officials refused to allow it to be hosted there under the same regulations that would be used to prevent a political rally or a human rights event.
In additional to being caught up in the running battle between the state and dissidents in the real world, Chinese homosexuals have also been caught up in cyberspace, too. With Beijing clamping down on online activities in the same way as off line activities - particularly where gay rights are involved - for the same reasons. Fear of organized groups, fear of initiatives that do not originate from the state, and fear of those whose calls for reform emphasis flaws in the current system.
One other area in which homosexual groups sometimes find themselves caught up in the crossfire is Beijing's ongoing crackdown against online pornography.
This isn't to say that Chinese homosexual interest groups publish Internet pornography, but rather that material published by them is often deleted by webmasters and message board administrators who feel uncomfortable with the subject mater, Who call it pornographic in order to hide their embarrassment, or to make it seem acceptable so as to save face. Or by webmasters/message board administrators who fear that material with even mild sexual connections may attract state censors to their sites, and who delete it because they fear state censorship more than self censorship.
In some cases it is not the webmasters/administrators who refer to the material as being pornographic, but rather prejudice Mainlanders who report it, forcing face conscious webmasters/administrators to delete it for fear of attracting attention to themselves if people begin to make a fuss.
In other cases material is deleted specifically because it contains sexual content, though in a non sexualized context. Directly due to the state crackdown on pornography.
Material that is deleted can cover a wide range of areas. Though one area that has been of particular concern is the area of sexual health. With China-Watchers expressing concern over the lack of availability of content relating to sexually transmitted diseases, the use of barrier contraception, and the dispelling of myths regarding homosexuality, due to anti pornography measures.
China-Watchers state that deleting - or refusing to allow the publication - of what amounts to sex education material is un Chinese, and goes against the ethos of modern China as a society that values knowledge and education.
China watchers, however, note that heterosexual material often suffers a similar fate.
Although homosexuality is legal in China, and China's largely pacifistic nature means that assaults and/or murders committed against the gay community are much rarer than in countries such as the US where prejudice often spills over into violence, many gay Chinese are still concerned about making their sexuality known to their families and neighbors. Particularly young Chinese who feel under pressure from their families to conform to social norms, and even to produce heirs (China has no gay adoption, and surrogacy/artificial insemination is almost unknown in China).
Thus many gay Chinese are reticent about reveling their sexuality, and they prefer to maintain a certain level of anonymity when they do.
This desire for anonymity has lead many to the Internet. Where they can seek advice, converse with other homosexuals, and discuss topical issues relating to their sexuality, without revealing any more personal information than they choose to reveal.
However, here too, they are finding themselves caught in the crossfire of Beijing's crackdown on online dissidents.
Initially the Internet was totally anonymous. However, as Beijing began to crack down on dissidents it began requiring people to reveal more and more personal information in order to access it. First requiring people to show their ID cards in Internet cafes, and then bringing in systems to log activity against ID card.
Even if the state is not individually monitoring their activities, and even if what they are doing is of no real interest to the state, many find this intimidating and they either censor themselves or they avoid certain topics all together. Thus masking the true extent of certain problems, and making reform less likely, as well as making Chinese homosexuals feel more self conscious and more socially isolated as they are less able to discuss their problems and issues with confidence.
If current state policy continues as it is doing this problem looks set to become worth. with some officially offering support to a "real world identity" future for the Internet, where all Chinese Internet users are not only registered under their real names - even when using a home Internet connection – but must also reveal their real names when on line. Effectively removing all forms of anonymity.
Although this vision of the future is not yet certain, and its feasibility is not yet certain, it still prevents a significant impedance to Chinese homosexuals seeking to maintain their privacy.
As always, the question remains “what does the future hold?”.
In the short term, China-Watchers voice that things are likely to be “a mixed bag” as the Western saying goes. With Chinese homosexuals facing less prejudice as individuals for being homosexual, but facing more restrictions when they attempt to form into groups due to Beijing's dissident paranoia.
Taking the longer view, it is unlikely that Beijing will relax its grip on China significantly for some time to come. Though, as attitudes change, Beijing may be more inclined to draw distinctions between homosexual groups and dissidents. Thus things may become better. With homosexual groups not finding themselves in the line of fire so often due to increased awareness of gay issues amongst leaders.
However, it could equally be true that things may become worse, especially if the issue of gay rights becomes a “hot potato” in the future. In which case China's homosexual community could well see things becoming worse. With gay Chinese being seen as dissidents for seeking gay rights in much the same way as those seeking human rights, or farmers rights, have become dissidents.