Coming out in the countryside

Several years ago, when I was working in a very rural university, I hosted a group of college graduates from the United States. They were invited to visit with the students, and one of them became very popular with the girls in class. He always had more attention than any of the others, perhaps because he was incredibly friendly, had a bright smile, and was by most accounts handsome. However, what the fawning girls didn’t notice was that my friend was gay.

So after a week or so of having girls ask for his QQ number, I asked if he would be willing to host a very special English corner. Even though it was specifically in my contract that I was not to challenge traditional Chinese ideas about homosexuality* (which Richard Burger would point out, are actually a new construction), I decided that the students would find such a conversation interesting and hoped that it would expand their world view.

So after closing the doors and the windows, my friend explained to fifty students from rural China what it meant to be a gay man in the United States. He wasn’t quite sure what their reaction would be, but it was far more supportive than either one of us had expected. The students didn’t seem to understand why anyone would care. The questions focused mostly on how his family reacted, and several students wondered whether or not I was scared to be friends with a gay man. One girl after the session, who clearly didn’t quite get it, slipped him a note telling him how attractive he was and gave him her number just in case he wasn’t really gay.

Several hours later I received a text from a student who had grown up in the countryside asking if he could meet with my friend and I. That night he told us a truth about himself that he had never admitted to another person, that he too was homosexual. He said it was something he had always known, but had been too afraid to say out loud. That was until he heard a story that sounded so much like his own.

My friend, who was leaving the next day, worked frantically with this student to try and come up with some sort of plan. They knew it was too risky for him to come out to his classmates even though it meant suffering through another two years of people wondering where his girlfriend was, and his only hope was to move to a big city like Shanghai or better yet, overseas. The student though was far more realistic, he said, “I should just marry a woman, it would be too hard for my family to accept a gay son.” None of us tried to deny the fact that homosexuality is not tolerated in rural China, but we also didn’t want him (and his wife) to live that lie.

As Richard Burger details competently in his book, Behind the Red Door, attitudes towards homosexuality are changing quickly in China and this seems to be supported (not everywhere), but not when it comes to one’s own family. The sentiment seems to be “why would I care if someone in another family is gay?” but there’s a markedly different attitude if it is their relative. As my student lamented, “My parents want me to have kids, and I should just make them happy.” To which my friend replied, “But what about your happiness?”

I’m glad to say several years later my student has given up the notion that his parents’ desires for his life trump who he is.

*This part of the contract was not from my church, we believe that all people are created by God as they are.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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11 Responses to Coming out in the countryside

  1. Pingback: » Mid-Week Links: CCTV reporters descend on New York, Wen Jiabao fallout, and more from Ningbo PX protests Beijing Cream

  2. I’m of two personal minds, plus one professional mind, about this. Personally, I don’t feel anything about gays – they’re gay, they’re gay, big deal. However, in a place like China, I would recommend a local gay person not to proclaim his or her sexual orientation – mainly for the sake of personal safety, if nothing else – and advise them to find the best possible way to “live a lie” or move elsewhere where the atmosphere is more tolerant. I know that’s a very serious cop-out, but I don’t think rural areas of China is really going to be physically safe for gay people once the cat is let out of the bag. I don’t think the mentality towards gays of most Chinese people will ever change – mainly because your friend has hit the nail on the head: everyone puts the happiness of others/family ahead of their own.

    On a professional level, it is very sad to see gays being denied their legal rights. It’s completely abnormal even in a place like Hong Kong: I could assign all my worldly goods to a total stranger in a will and it would be legal. A gay person assigning the same to the partner often would not be. I can’t see the difference between the two situations. Indeed, shouldn’t the gay partner be closer – be more ‘family’ – than a total stranger? Factually speaking, it’s two people coming together, living their lives unoffensively, and wish to set some property rights to each other in the event of death or incapacity, and there’s nothing in the law to provide for it. If such is the situation in Hong Kong, I presume the property rights situation with respect to gays is even more unappetizing in China.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Homosexuality was legalised in UK only in1967. Attitudes have changed, becoming far more accepting, only in the last 20 years. Female homosexuality has never been illegal (as far as I know) but was also “the love that dare not speak its name” until relatively recently. Nowadays nobody cares too much. I hope China continues to become more accepting of gay people. It’s not only the anguish of the homosexual person, forced to live a lie but also the unwitting spouse, duped into marriage that needs to be addressed.

      • You are correct about British female homosexuality – it was never illegal because Queen Victoria had never even imagined it could exist, and that accounts for the total silence in law (which then makes it “non-illegal”) when the first “buggery” laws were introduced during her reign. Nobody in the UK (or throughout most of Western Europe) cares two bit about homosexuality because it makes nil social impact. Right now in Hong Kong here, there are a couple of religious NGOs going all out against “LGBT” using the exact same political and social pressure tactics used in the USA to the point of hiring professional PR firms to do the targetting. I understand from my business contacts inside the PRC that the same is trending there (although I can’t verify this).

  3. Pingback: China - Being gay and coming out in the Chinese countryside

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  5. LeaveChinaAlone says:

    Being accepting of something because it is against the law not to, is quite different to accepting something for what it is. Why don’t Americans get it that not every culture in the world wants to follow in their sordid footsteps? America, the land of the free and the depraved.

    And its refreshing to live in a culture that is protected from the depravity of the West. Don’t ever kid yourselves you have it good. America/UK etc are sick societies.

    • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

      Dear LeaveChinaAlone, I don’t think that nice heterosexual Chinese ladies who find themselves married to homosexual Chinese husbands would agree with your point of view. What a sordid and distressing life for all concerned. I understand that there is a club in Shanghai for older married homosexual men to meet and dance with their homosexual friends. Any unsuspecting wife who appears looking for her husband, is quickly led away.

  6. Of course it’s better all round to accept a thing for what it is (or is not) than because of its legal status (or lack of). Not everyone (or every culture in the world) wants to follow in American footsteps, sordid or otherwise. More importantly, the USA doesn’t want others to follow their ways either, sordid or otherwise. American, British or any other Western society aren’t sick societies – they have problems and they are facing up to them. They don’t kid themselves that they have it good – they know full well some parts of their societies ARE better as much as they see some parts are NOT. We Chinese shouldn’t ever kid ourselves that we have it good either. Geddit?

  7. In case there are some of us who don’t actually ‘get it’ about Tom’s post, it is about certain points of perspective taken towards homosexuality by non-urban Chinese communities (extrapolated from observing a limited sample of students) and the possible reasons behind that perspective based on Tom’s experience living in China. It’s no more and no less than that.

  8. Sara says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I’m happy to hear that at least than young man was able to talk about his situation with you and your friend, it must have been a huge comfort for him at the time. I’m not that aware of the homosexuality in China and how common people usually react to it, but I’ve been following a weibo of @强少OR忠少 who are a gay couple in Dongguan. I hope that with their example, they married this year, more homosexuals could come out in China and live the life they want to live.

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