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Why gay rights
are good for China

Why gay rights
are good for China


China has more to gain from embracing gay rights than any other country in the world--for the sake of sheer practicality

Things had been difficult from the start for the organizers of the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Culture Festival. Having originally planned to hold the Chinese capital's first-ever public celebration of gay and lesbian art, theater, film, and academia on December 16 at an artists colony in Beijing's Dashanzi District, their first setback had come two days earlier, when the city's Municipal Public Security Bureau revoked its permission to use the building.

Undeterred, the festival crew quickly contacted participants and arranged a replacement venue in another part of the city. As a private establishment the On/Off Bar should have been immune to the whims of Chinese officialdom, but as 3 P.M. came and the start of the festival approached, the doors flew open and around 20 plainclothes and uniformed police officers burst into the building.

Shutting down the festival, the police tore banners and posters from the walls while filming frightened attendees with camcorders as they tried to flee. This move by local authorities was particularly disappointing, as it was a significant step backward for a country slowly but surely changing its official position on gay rights.

Despite still being classed as a "foreign disease" in the early 1990s, homosexuality is now a topic open for discussion in communist China, and state repression has been on a slow decline for almost a decade, though gay Web sites are still shut down by authorities.

The Utopia Guide to China now lists 45 major cities across the country and in its territories that have gay scenes large enough to warrant mention. Also, Fudan University in Shanghai has been offering a postgraduate course on gay health issues since 2003; a new undergraduate course on homosexuality and gay culture launched at the same faculty last year was swamped with so many applicants that hundreds had to be turned away.

So why all this official fuss about a gay festival small enough to fit into a Beijing bar? It seems that while the Chinese Communist Party is prepared to allow small changes to occur at a pace of its own choosing, it's a completely different thing for gay and lesbian Chinese to come together and consider change themselves, no matter how unthreatening the forum might be.

It's disappointing, because in doing so, the Chinese government is missing out on a golden opportunity: Out of all the countries in the world, it is China that has the most to gain from embracing gay rights, not out of altruism but for the sake of sheer practicality. And ironically, it is heterosexual Chinese who will benefit the most.

After decades of repressive population controls owing to the "one-child policy," combined with a cultural preference for male children, Chinese men are beginning to significantly outnumber women. According to China's latest census, 116.9 Chinese boys were born for every 100 girls in 2000. By 2020, a large number of mainland Chinese males may have no hope of even dating a woman, let alone actually marrying one. Add to this limited aged-care services in the country (resulting in Chinese wives being expected to look after their husband's parents in old age) and Chinese men find themselves with enormous family pressure to get married.

Put simply, embracing gay rights and promoting social acceptance of gay and bisexual men in China would greatly improve the odds of success for those exclusively heterosexual Chinese men seeking partners--by taking closeted gay and bisexual men out of the competition.

Conservative estimates put mainland China's gay population at 30 million, very few of whom are out to family or friends. Add to that uncalculated millions of bisexuals, and that's a lot of men keeping up appearances rather than being in stable same-sex relationships.

More important, China has perhaps the longest cultural history of any nation in accepting homosexuality and bisexuality, beginning with the start of records in the Zhou Dynasty (circa 1122--256 BC) and ending only in the 19th century with colonialism and widespread contact with Christianity; it's one that easily eclipses even the most progressive of ancient Greek city-states.

Though men were still obliged to marry women in ancient China for the sake of continuing the family line, these unions were material, political affairs only. Romantic love was extramarital, and it was considered equally acceptable for a man to have a male lover or concubine, depending on his preference. Bisexuality was the norm, but there was no shame in being exclusively homosexual or heterosexual either (the only taboo being class, as a younger man could not partner with an older man of lesser status).

History has recorded more than a few Chinese emperors whose disdain for women was enough to leave them childless. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.--220 A.D.), Emperor Ai even attempted to will his empire to his lover Dong Xian, but the court rebelled upon his death. Fujian province even had a form of same-sex marriage with its own distinct ceremonies: The younger man was given the title of "adoptive brother" and recognized as a son-in-law by the older man's family.

If reembraced, this history gives the Chinese Communist Party exactly the sort of nationalist ammunition it needs to make the ideological U-turn required for it to reclassify homosexuality as accepted in the Chinese national character.

Such a change could also have political advantages for the Chinese government on the international stage, as China could then claim to have trumped the United States and Taiwan (who have not legalized same-sex marriage) on at least one aspect of human rights. After all, China has come under fire for its treatment of dissidents and religious minorities, particularly as other nations contrast such an image to how a 2008 Olympics host should seem.

If, however, China fails to change, it can only expect to reap further fallout from its massive gender gap, in the form of higher male suicide, murder, rape, and prostitution, all of which have already begun to rise.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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