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Chinese Lesbians Enjoy Gov’t, Social Tolerance with a Wink and a Nod

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jul 19, 2011
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The Chinese government has embraced gay men only in fits and starts, but lesbians have a much easier time of it, according to a July 10 New York Times article re-posted to Delo.si.

Though Chinese society is only gradually becoming more tolerant of male homosexuality, gays there still face considerable prejudice, in part because of pressure for sons to marry and procreate.

But the fact that China, like every other nation, suffers from the AIDS pandemic has trumped cultural reticence and opened up dialogue about sexuality. An About.com article notes that China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, is thought to include 30 million GLBTs in its population.

In 1997, homosexuality was decriminalized in China, the About.com article said. In 2001, Chinese mental health professionals followed the example of American peers from three decades before, and declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. Gays and lesbians have begun to see themselves reflected in the popular culture.

But progress has been fitful. Not long after the government opened a gay bar on World AIDS Day in 2009, in part to educate gays about HIV, it canceled what was meant to be the first Mr. Gay China pageant at the last minute. Nor does the government tolerate Pride and its associated parades and other events, the New York Times article noted. Such events must be celebrated secretively.

But for lesbians, life in China is considerably easier, "the result of profound social changes over three decades of fast economic growth," the New York Times article says, "and of being female in a society that values men far above women.

"Invisibility provides lesbians with room to live and love amid the anonymity of China’s millions-strong megacities," the article adds.

A Beijing lesbian, Wu Zheng, pointed out a paradox that lies within the Chinese attitude toward homosexuality. "Chinese people can accept people being lesbian or gay," she told the newspaper. "But not within their own family."

A large part of the problem is that China permits each couple to have only one child. Son or daughter, that single offspring is seen as the family’s conduit to future generations.

"The pressure to marry is enormous," agreed Ming Ming, a filmmaker who is also openly lesbian. Though men are pressured more overtly and are socially valued more than women are, "It’s a huge loss of face for a family when a daughter doesn’t marry."

A Chinese Academy of Social Sciences sociologist agreed. "Traditional society basically overlooks women in some ways, and there is a certain freedom in that," Li Yinhe told the Times. "But that free space isn’t necessarily power."

Though a certain social acceptance is broadly available, some lesbians encounter violence -- sometimes from their own families, the article said, though nothing like the "corrective" rape that is rampant in other nations such as South Africa, where lesbians are sexually assaulted by men who are convinced that rape will "cure" lesbians.

Many lesbians accede to family pressure and wed men, the article said.

"And then they all have affairs with each other," a lesbian named Wu Zi told the Times. "The lesbian scene is very chaotic." Zi herself lost a significant to a heterosexual marriage upon which the other woman’s parents insisted. Zi responded to her own parents’ pleas for her to marry by saying that she would be glad to, if the person she was marrying were another woman.

But beneath that jocularity is an undercurrent of seriousness. Murmurs of marriage rights for gays and lesbians have begun, and older women have started to emerge from the closet.

But while big cities may offer a measure of acceptance, small towns are the same the world over. Women in rural communities face that much more social and familial pressure to stifle their innate, natural desires for love and romance with other women, and marry men instead.

A lesbian named Xue Lian summed up her own feelings by telling the Times that if she tried to live as a man’s wife, sex "would be like rape."

Her father remarked, "She’s a good daughter. But disobedient. She doesn’t marry."

Lian’s thoughts on her "disobedience?"

"I don’t think I’m a selfish person. But love is selfish." Said Lian, "Either my father will be unhappy, or I will be unhappy."

Last year, a 400-year-old play about female lovers was given a fresh production in Beijing. "Lianxiang Ban" (or, in its official English translation, "A Romance: Two Belles in Love") is the work of playwright Li Yu. Two women fall in love in the play, and make plans to marry the same man in order to married, in a sense, to one another. The work was performed at the famed Poly Theatre in Beijing; the choice of such a prominent venue had Chinese LGBTs excited.

"The fact that we have approval to put this kind of subject matter on stage is one more step towards Chinese society becoming more open-minded," the production’s director, Stanley Kwan, told the press. Kwan is an openly gay filmmaker with films such as the Chow Yun Fat-starring Women and Lan Yu, which has a gay theme, to his credit.

But while many saw the play’s new production as a daring step, others were unimpressed. Gay podcast producer Xiaogang Wei opined that "It would have been more of a challenge to have gay men" featured in such a prominently produced play.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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