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LGBTQ rights in China: Halfway out of closet?

Queer communities face obstacles as they try to push forward

Hao Wu, fourth from left, is back in Chengdu for his grandfather's birthday. (Photo by Jingyang Cheng)

NEW YORK -- A skyline immersed in a hazy layer of fog, a street crowded with mopeds, a community game room filled with patrons playing mahjong and munching on sunflower seeds -- this is the Chinese city of Chengdu in Hao Wu's documentary "All in My Family," launched on Netflix in mid-May.

Now in his mid-40s, Wu left Chengdu for the U.S. at 20 and quickly realized that he was gay after encountering American LGBTQ communities.

He came out to his parents and older sister in his 20s, but in the film he is back in China trying to decide whether to come out to his grandfather, who still expects his grandson to find a wife and have children.

Complicating matters, Wu has started a surrogacy process with his partner, a Mandarin-speaking Chinese American, and twins are on the way. Wu has yet to decide on how to explain the babies to his grandfather, and is increasingly aware of the effect on his parents of his decision to come out to them in his mid-20s.

"When I was making this film, [my family and I] finally talked about how my coming-out has impacted them," Wu said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. "There's a Chinese saying that people who do not have children have a difficult time understanding their parents," he said. "Once you are a parent yourself, you just understand how much labor and love your parents invested in you. So I became much more aware of their feelings and how it hurt them."

The filmmaker is the only son in his family, and his relatives had high hopes that he would both succeed and marry well. China has opened up a lot since he left, but many queer people continue to find it difficult to come out to their parents, in part because Chinese society remains heavily influenced by traditional cultural approaches in which being different is not valued.

Hao Wu won the Grand Jury Award at the 2018 SXSW for his previous documentary, People’s Republic of Desire. (Photo by Sthanlee B. Mirador)

"The overwhelming power of tradition, [of] conforming, can still be extremely hard for young people to come out and for their families to accept them," said Wu. "But now [they] can at least come out to themselves and to their LGBTQ friends."

China has no laws against discrimination in regard to sexual orientation or gender identity, and although homosexual activities were decriminalized in 1997, homosexuality was not declassified as a mental disease until 2001. In March, Beijing said it accepted a series of recommendations on LGBTQ rights from the U.N. Human Rights Council, including the introduction of anti-discrimination laws within a year. However, it remains unclear what action will follow, if any.

Recent legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in nearby Taiwan remains unimaginable in China, and "conversion therapy," which practitioners claim can change sexual orientation, is still being practiced in China, according to activists such as Liang Xiaowen, a feminist activist from China who is now a lawyer in New York.

Liang said that more progressive government policies are crucial in creating a more tolerant environment for the LGBTQ community. "Even if people have a hard time accepting queer individuals, if the law acknowledges and protects the LGBTQ groups, people would be much more open to accept us," Liang said.

Thanks to the internet, researching the LGBTQ community and finding people with similar lifestyles has become less difficult in China. For many, though, the best they can hope for is to move "halfway out of the closet," as the Chinese aphorism has it.

Gary (not his real name) is a 24-year-old project management trainee who has only come out to trusted friends. "For my parents, they think if I do not marry a woman and have my own children, it is considered unfilial," Gary said via WeChat, a Chinese messaging service, adding that his parents worry about gossip and discrimination.

Wu and his partner have gone through surrogacy to have twins. (Photo by Hao Wu)

"Most people [in China] would say other people's affairs have nothing to do with me, but when it comes to their own children or relatives, they cannot accept it," said Xiang Qi (not her real name), the founder of Shanghai Nvai, a group mainly catering to lesbians and queer women.

Xiang has come out to most of her family, but not to her father. Although her mother has been supportive of her decision, she still hopes that her daughter will marry a man and "live like everyone else." Qi said that it remained common for people to remain in the closet at work, especially if they are employed by the government.

Life is even more problematic for transgender people. Xiao Tao (not her real name), a 29-year-old mechanical engineer at a state-owned enterprise, said she begged her parents for three years to approve her choice and sign off on her gender reassignment surgery. She had the surgery later, but has not told her co-workers because she is afraid that she might get fired.

"I think a lot of people [remain halfway] to avoid the harm other people could bring them," Xiao said via WeChat. "Because once you are out, you may need to endure being ridiculed or mocked by others. And it can be hard to find jobs."

The LGBTQ community has suffered several crackdowns online. Last year, the popular blogging platform Weibo launched a campaign to remove queer content from its platform, putting it in the same category as violence and pornography. Weibo reversed course after many users protested, but the "les" tag, which is a topic tag for lesbians, disappeared in April. The purge backfired, with many users posting: "We are les," to protest against the censorship. Weibo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Wu has not come out to his grandfather. (Photo by Hao Wu)

Around the same time, another public discussion group called "les sky" on Douban, a Chinese online forum, became unsearchable, raising concerns that a widespread crackdown might be starting.

Leta Hong Fincher, a New York sociologist focused on gender studies in China and author of "Betraying Big Brother," said the crackdowns could be related to the gender gap in China. By the end of 2018, there were 31.6 million more men than women in the country, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, as a result of China's decades-long "one child policy," abandoned in 2016, and a long-standing preference for male children.

"I think the government is very concerned about all these men who cannot find wives," said Fincher, adding that government propaganda in favor of heterosexual marriage has intensified since the abolition of the one child policy. "My hypothesis is that the government is trying to push urban, educated women to have more babies," she said.

The internet censorship has upset the LGBTQ community, leaving them feeling disempowered and disappointed. But many are determined to keep up the fight for equal rights.

"Each individual still has to go through their individual battle, at home and outside, to come out, to assert their identity, and to embrace both themselves and others who may have different views," said Wu. "I don't believe there's any set, right course or timeline for that battle, but only with little victories here and there with those individual battles can we hope to truly turn the tide of public opinion and social mores to our side."

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