Amid the Epidemic, a Quiet Leap Forward for China’s LGBT Community


The days leading up to the Lunar New Year was a tense time for people across China amid the worsening COVID-19 epidemic. But Jiang Junjie had even more reason to feel nervous than most.

The 26-year-old not only planned to visit his parents in the southern city of Chaozhou, 350 kilometers from his home in Shenzhen, in spite of the outbreak; he was also bringing along his boyfriend.

It would be the first meeting between Jiang’s partner and his family, and the young engineer had a lot riding on the outcome. In China, bringing a partner home for the holiday is a big gesture — and often a sign the couple intends to one day tie the knot.

Just months ago, Jiang wouldn’t have considered taking such a step. The previous Lunar New Year, he’d finally come out to his family, and it had gone worse than he’d feared. His father had told him never to come home again. His mother had said nothing at all.

But Jiang had managed to change his parents’ minds with the help of an unexpected ally: the Chinese government.

In late 2019, the country’s top legislative body allowed the public to make suggestions for an updated draft of China’s civil code. It received an avalanche of submissions, with nearly 200,000 people sending feedback in one month. Over 190,000 of them made the same proposal: Legalize same-sex marriage. It was so overwhelming that officials publicly acknowledged legalizing gay marriage was among the most popular suggestions they had received during a Dec. 20 press conference.

“As far as I know, never in the history of Chinese legislation have so many people put forward so many opinions on one law,” says Sun Wenlin, co-founder of iFamily, a nongovernmental organization that promotes same-sex marriage in China.

Jiang messaged his parents with the news, and told them tens of thousands of people like him had campaigned for it. “Two days later, my dad called and asked me to bring my boyfriend home for the Lunar New Year,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Many LGBT people in China have been similarly excited — and more than a little surprised — at the government’s reaction to the civil code consultation. Though few expect China to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon, the authorities’ willingness to recognize the issue is an important step forward — and could encourage more people like Jiang’s father to accept the gay community.

In previous statements, officials had signaled clear opposition to marriage equality. As recently as this past August, Zang Tiewei, a government spokesperson, told reporters that China’s current civil code — which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — was “consistent with our country’s national circumstances, history, and culture.”

Sun, of iFamily, says he expected officials to take a similar line again, or ignore the issue completely, after the public consultation. “But they showed neither support nor opposition (for same-sex marriage), which is a lot more positive than last time,” the 29-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

The change in tone has convinced Sun that China may allow same-sex marriage much sooner than he’d previously thought. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit against his local civil affairs bureau in the central Hunan province for the right to marry his partner — China’s first case over same-sex marriage — but the court ruled in favor of the government. After that setback, Sun assumed he’d have to wait 20 years to get married, but now he’s more optimistic.

“Now I don’t think it’ll take that long, after seeing how quickly people’s attitudes toward gay people and same-sex marriage have changed in the past few years,” says Sun.

Though homophobia and discrimination remain all-too-common in China, there are signs that society is becoming more tolerant as the LGBT community gets more vocal and visible.

When Jiang started identifying as gay a decade ago, he says he didn’t feel he could confide in anyone, given the widespread negative attitudes toward LGBT people in society. Now, however, he has come out to his colleagues and family members and feels most people his age accept him for who he is.

The results of a December poll conducted by Chinese news website ifeng.com support his assessment. According to the poll, 6.3 million people — 66% of the respondents — voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Chinese Christian groups appeared to be alarmed by the news, with several beginning to organize opposition to a potential legalization on social media.

The Alibaba-owned shopping platform Tmall, meanwhile, caused a stir in January by producing a Lunar New Year TV ad featuring a father and mother warmly welcoming their son’s boyfriend into their home during a family reunion.

“It’s so exciting and encouraging to see a gay couple on a TV commercial in China,” says Jiang. “I feel we’re almost being acknowledged and accepted by society.”

Gao Bo, director of the LGBT group PFLAG in Wuhan, Hubei province, says the Dec. 20 press conference will definitely have an effect on China’s gay community, making more people willing to come out.

“We’ve been walking in the dark: Even if there’s just one star above our heads, we feel very bright and hopeful,” says Gao.

Two weeks after the press conference, Gao’s PFLAG chapter held a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples in Wuhan. More than 200 people came to watch four couples — including Gao and his partner — symbolically tie the knot, an attendance beyond Gao’s expectations.

“The wedding not only celebrates our love; it also encourages more people to speak up for themselves,” says Gao. He plans to make the group wedding an annual event in Wuhan once the city has recovered from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which was still at a very early stage in early January.

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

The 36-year-old created an online group with more than 100 members during the civil code consultation, to encourage more people to send responses.

“Many of them asked me if China would legalize same-sex marriage this time, and I told them 300% ‘no,’” says Gao. “But the key is that we need to stick together, get ready, and then when the government reveals any positive attitude, we’ll know what to do and how to seize the opportunity.”

Jiang and his partner took full advantage of their invitation to Chaozhou over Lunar New Year. Things started awkwardly, Jiang recalls, but the family gradually loosened up as they took part in a few activities together.

“We watched TV, played video games, wrote couplets in honor of the festival, and livestreamed on social media,” says Jiang. “My boyfriend cooked several different dishes every day, which really pleased my parents.”

Jiang’s parents even asked his boyfriend to join them in burning incense and praying to Buddha — a New Year tradition in parts of southern China. “It was a sign of acceptance, as we don’t typically ask guests to do it with us,” says Jiang.

But not even the success of the civil code campaign was enough to convince Chen Minming, a 35-year-old from the eastern province of Fujian, to bring her girlfriend to the Lunar New Year dinner with her parents over the holiday.

When Chen told her parents she was a lesbian in 2018, her mother was too shocked to speak. “Then, she cried for days,” she recalls.

Chen’s father also strongly disapproved of her sexual orientation. “My girlfriend was nice enough to collect some articles on LGBT issues online and print them out for my dad, but he still disagreed,” says Chen.

Unlike most of the LGBT people who spoke with Sixth Tone, Chen remains pessimistic about the prospects of same-sex marriage in China, pointing out that legalization in other countries came only after decades of campaigning. “I don’t think it’ll happen any faster than that in China,” says Chen.

In November, Chen and her partner held a small wedding ceremony in Thailand to celebrate their love. “I don’t care that it isn’t legal,” she says. “I just believe life should be filled with a sense of ritual.”

Eros Li, a 39-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, however, has no intention of holding a wedding, even if China decides to allow same-sex marriage. Li has been with his boyfriend for 17 years, and he says a piece of paper won’t affect the way they feel about each other.

“I think marriage is a tool for the government to promote the stability and unity of the country,” says Li. “And many people don’t get married for love anyway.”

Nevertheless, Li is an enthusiastic campaigner for marriage equality. He participated in the civil code consultation and encouraged his friends to do the same — even those afraid of coming out.

“Whether I want to get married or not is different from whether I should have the right to get married,” says Li.

Li doesn’t think the authorities’ recognition of the support for same-sex marriage means it’s rethinking its policy. “The number of responses on this topic was far higher than any other — they just couldn’t avoid mentioning it,” he says.

But the government’s attitude has no effect on him on a personal level, according to Li. He and his partner have good relationships with both sets of parents, and the couple spent the Lunar New Year with Li’s family in the eastern Jiangxi province.

“I take my partner home based on whether my family accepts him, not based on the civil code,” says Li. “Even if we’re not legally accepted yet, as long as my family embraces us, I’m willing to take him home.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Chinese Asexuals Navigate Love, Duty, and Ignorance


SHANGHAI — When Marie Guo confided in her dormmates about her asexuality, she received little sympathy. Instead, they questioned how a virgin could be so sure she didn’t feel sexually attracted to anybody. “They suggested I have sex with my boyfriend and emphasized I needed to do it repeatedly before drawing a conclusion,” Guo tells Sixth Tone.

Being questioned, ridiculed, and dismissed is a common experience among people who identify as asexual, a sexual orientation defined as lacking sexual attraction to others. But while there is some public knowledge of asexuality in other countries, in China ignorance is still widespread.

In a 2004 paper, Canadian psychology professor Anthony Bogaert estimated that asexuals account for about 1% of the world’s population, which would mean the sexual minority has about 13 million members in China. Many of them fear coming out — especially to older generations, who often put immense value on marriage and having children. Parents find asexuality hard to accept or see it as a disorder that can be cured. Some interviewees did not use their Chinese given names to protect their privacy.

Asexuality is often confused with sexual dysfunction, where people with disorders experience distress due to their lack of sexual attraction — something asexual people don’t typically feel. Some asexual people say they masturbate to relieve tension — as does Guo, who remembers being met with more disbelief when she tried to explain this to her dormmates. Other people who identify as “little A,” the common nickname in China for asexual people, have sex only to satisfy their partners.

Diane Xie cannot imagine how it would feel to have sex with someone. “When people say someone is sexy, I have no idea what it means,” she says. When searching for answers online, she found AVEN — the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, the world’s largest online community for asexual people. After reading its explanation of asexuality, she exclaimed that this was who she was. But she was still a bit uncertain, wondering if maybe the person who could interest her sexually just hadn’t shown up yet.

Therefore, when studying in Hong Kong in 2015, Xie began dating a Dutch student for whom she had feelings. She tried intimacy up to second base but felt nothing other than uncomfortable. “I thought he was attractive and I really enjoyed hanging out with him, but I just didn’t have the desire to have further physical contact with him,” says the 24-year-old Shanghai native, who wears a black ring on her right middle finger, an internationally used sign for asexuality.

Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying

Chinese academic research into asexuality is, for now, limited to just one paper, published in 2018 by researchers at Southwest University in the city of Chongqing. The findings of their study of 284 individuals who were certain they were or thought they might be asexual were in line with results in the West. But what the country lacks in scientific writing, it makes up for in social media activity. Popular apps like DoubanZhihu, WeChat, and QQ all have asexuality communities whose members can number in the tens of thousands.

When Yin Xuyan’s middle school classmates started to obsess over celebrities or experience their first loves, she remembers feeling nothing. “I don’t even have the experience of having a crush on someone, and I have no impulse at all to fall in love,” says the 19-year-old from the eastern city of Yangzhou. She then began to reflect on whether she’d suffered any physical or mental trauma in childhood, but other than her mother telling her that girls can’t touch boys or masturbate, she couldn’t think of anything. She sought porn catering to female pleasure, but that didn’t arouse her either.

Like thousands of others before her, Yin found the answer on Douban. “The moment I knew I was asexual, I felt so relieved,” she says. “Everything seemed to make sense then.” But when Yin told her best friend, she didn’t take it seriously. “Maybe no one will ever take it seriously,” Yin says. The freshman doesn’t talk much about her sexuality, and when people ask whether she has a boyfriend, “I just pretend I’m a good student who wants to devote herself to studying and has no time for dating,” she says, laughing.

But Yin will have to tell her conservative parents at some point and has been preparing what she calls a “psychological setup” since middle school. “I told them I might not get married in the future, and I act like a proactive feminist who doesn’t accept any patriarchal suppression,” she says. The argument lasted three years before they tacitly accepted that their daughter might be single for the rest of her life.

“While asexual people in Western countries are getting recognition and equal treatment, most asexuals don’t dare come out in China,” says Su Yanchen, one of the authors of the 2018 paper. He hopes their research can increase the social visibility of the asexual community and give them the opportunity to speak up in China. “Asexuals must expand their influence and fight for more rights, just like other LGBT groups, if they want to be recognized and live happily in this sexual-dominated society,” he says.

Compared with other sexual minorities, public awareness of asexuality is much lower. “Homosexuality is at least in line with the mainstream view that everyone needs sex, but asexuality is farther away from the mainstream,” says Frank Gao, a 26-year-old graduate student currently living in Germany. He previously identified as gay, but after dating men for years, he felt that something was off: Sex was boring to him. “It’s just as boring as when we are required to write something 100 times by the teacher as punishment,” he explains. “I don’t want sex, and if I have to do the same action many times, it bores me.”

During his senior year at university, Gao came across the term “asexuality” on an LGBT forum and started to reflect. “It shocked me,” he says. “I had lived as gay for years, and all of sudden it changed.” In 2011, an online survey of 3,436 people aged 16 to 25 who identified as asexual suggested that women asexuals significantly outnumber their male counterparts. And the percentage of asexual people who are attracted to the same sex is much lower than the percentage of those who like the opposite sex. This means that someone like Gao, a male asexual who’s into men, is a minority within a minority.

None of Gao’s ex-boyfriends are asexual. When he told them he didn’t enjoy sex, they thought it was because he is “too rational.” The lack of a sex life affected his relationships. “Most gay men have a strong libido, and that’s why if I didn’t have sex with my exes, they’d often complain that I didn’t love them.”

Gao has been dating another Chinese student in Germany for a year. The couple have a lot in common, from values to interests — except when it comes to sex. But Gao says they compromise and have negotiated to have sex twice a month: “This frequency is quite low for a gay person, but we are willing to sacrifice for each other.”

It’s hard to explain to sexual people what asexuality is, says Gao, who often attempts to do so both online and offline. “They can’t empathize with what it means for someone not to be sexually attracted to any gender,” he says. Once Gao was asked if he had sexual desire for animals. “The public is set on the idea that humans have a desire for something,” he says.

When Jenny Wang explained to her roommates last year what sex means to asexual people, she used a metaphor. “Everyone has a few kinds of food that they don’t crave but don’t absolutely reject, either.” They understood right away, which Wang doesn’t think would happen with her parents and friends back home in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where awareness and information about such topics are scarce.

Despite her successful food metaphor, Wang thinks there is little understanding among the public: “If we don’t have sex, people would ask how come we know we are asexual before we try it; but if we do have sex, people question how we can do it if we are asexual.”

Wang started identifying as asexual after moving to Shanghai in 2017 to study journalism. She did the Kinsey Scale test, designed half a century ago by sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey. In his sexual orientation research, Kinsey reported that 1.5% of the population didn’t have any sexual reactions, and so he created a new category, “X,” for them. “I felt happy when I saw the X result, meaning I’ve fully accepted myself,” says Wang.

Wang joined a WeChat group of over 180 Chinese asexual people last year. There, she found a sense of belonging. Group members chat daily about everything from LGBT events to self-motivation. “I feel they feel me, and it’s easier to find common ground with them — and more importantly, I don’t need to think too much before I share my feelings,” says the 20-year-old.

A few months ago, Wang’s best male friend confessed his love to her. Wang turned him down after hesitating for two days, in large part because she’s afraid her asexuality will affect the relationship. “The most intimate thing I can accept,” she says after a long pause, “is probably hugging, and kissing on the lips at the most.”

Though having a child is not in her life plan, Wang already knows her parents will make her have one. Growing up in a small town where most girls have their firstborn before the age of 20, she doesn’t want to come out to her parents until she’s financially independent. Her parents, who are in their early 50s, still believe gay people are mentally ill — a thought that lingers, despite homosexuality being taken off China’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. “If I want to live the way I want, I must stay in Shanghai after graduation, because people here are much more open-minded,” she says.

Chen Mei, 27, found out she’s asexual while at university and has been married for nearly a year now. She told her husband she’s asexual when he asked her out for the first time. Though he had little clue of what the term entailed, he searched online and was considerate. “He said he’s OK with this, and I have feelings for him, so we’re together,” Chen says.

Just like Gao and his boyfriend, Chen and her husband discussed how often they would have sex before registering their marriage. “Any couple needs to adjust to one another,” she says. “Even in sexual relationships, things don’t always go smoothly. Sexual compatibility is just one of many factors that a relationship needs to take into account, such as life goals, lifestyle, and personality matches.”

Chen isn’t actively seeking asexual friends to bolster her sense of belonging. She’s happy with her current life. “Asexuality is just one of my identities. It doesn’t make my life better or worse. Asexual people just have different needs and meet different challenges from sexual people.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.