How Would Accepting Gay Culture Change China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the core provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act is not only “a stride toward greater equality in the United States, but also a shift that will reverberate far beyond our shores,” wrote novelist and University of Maryland mathematics professor Manil Suri.

“America has always been a beacon for those unable to live a life of liberty in their homelands, and the ruling sends a strong signal of encouragement to such individuals, and to their governments, about what we consider fair and morally acceptable," Suri wrote in an opinion in The New York Times. We asked a handful of concerned China watchers to answer the question “How Would Accepting Gay Culture Change China?”


First and foremost, acceptance of gay culture would directly challenge the association between marriage and procreation, which is deeply rooted in traditional values in China. Mencius noted more than thousands of years ago: “There are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them.” If acceptance of homosexuality is to be witnessed widely in China, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the general consensus regarding the purposes of marriage. The obligation of producing offspring will have to play a lesser role, and marriage would focus more on the relationship between the two people involved.

This potential shift would affect the heterosexual population as much as the LGBT community, since when one reaches a certain age, the pressure—from parents, families, and the general society—to get married and have kids is quite universal in China. As an ally, I sincerely wish that the more frequent discussion of homosexuality and marriage in China will prompt a greater conversation on Chinese culture’s capacity to accept one’s search for true identity, diversity, and personal freedom. Hopefully, as gay culture becomes part of the norm, women who are getting married later or not entering matrimony also will be recognized as a norm, rather than being classified with derogatory terms such as “leftover women.” If the young generation can challenge traditional views and pass down progressive values of acceptance, this might be one of the greatest cultural and social legacies people born in the 1980s leave for later generations.

How would accepting gay culture change China? It would restore China to its full glory of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when an emperor famously cut off his sleeve rather than disturbing his sleeping male lover, turning the phrase "passion of the cut sleeve" to a poetic term to describe homosexuality.

Facetious answer aside, many experts have pointed out that historically China has been a relatively accepting place for homosexuality due to the lack of religious condemnation. Some of the nation’s best-known literary classics contain detailed references to gay culture. (But Fei Wang is right: There is a big caveat, particularly for men—Confucianism expects everyone to produce offspring to carry on the family line.)

Public intolerance of homosexuality seems to be a more recent phenomenon, especially after the post-1949 Communist government denounced it as a feudal and bourgeois decadence. Adopting a puritanical moral code, the authorities have in the past listed homosexuality as a mental disorder and prosecuted gay people under the crime of hooliganism. Now no longer a crime or disease, homosexuality has nonetheless remained a sensitive topic in the eye of the government. State broadcaster CCTV, for instance, censored remarks by Ang Lee and Sean Penn during their Oscar acceptance speeches for two gay-themed movies. Police sometimes shut down gay venues and events with little advance warnings.

Times are changing, though. Gay bars and clubs continue to pop up nationwide. Gay topics—including advancements of gay rights mostly related to pop culture—are discussed widely across social media. Progress and hope exist even in places where traditional values remain most entrenched. I recently covered a touching story of an openly gay couple living in rural China who want to get married—and found that most of the members of their families are supportive of their relationship.

It’s probably years away for gay issues like workplace equality and same-sex marriage to be put on the government agenda. The authorities will keep a tight grip on gay rights advocacy groups as they do on other NGOs with organizational capability (thus potentially challenging the Party’s monopoly on power).

As in many other countries, however, I see richer, younger, more educated, and urban Chinese—who get to meet and know gay people in real life—emerge to adopt a more accepting view of the gay community and its culture. That would make China a more diverse and, borrowing a (former) government catchphrase, harmonious society.