The story of Anwei and Yebin, a Chinese gay couple now living in a rural village in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China, appeared in the Chinese parenting magazine Ren Zhi Chu. Their story was later picked up by domestic and international news media such asiFeng, the Global Times, and CNN. Both coming from farming families and, having struggled with their identities (Yebin had been in a heterosexual relationship previously), Anwei and Yebin’s story has inspired many – especially given the supportive stance of their parents, with Yebin’s mother having initiated the idea for them to draft a relationship contract to provide them with the financial and legal security afforded by heterosexual marriage. When we asked them how they feel about the prospect for legalised same sex marriage in China, they answered without a doubt that they believed it certain to happen.
However, contrary to Anwei and Yebin’s optimism, freedom from discrimination for homosexuals, not to mention legalised same sex marriage, still has a long way to go in China.
The Chinese government’s attitude towards homosexuality is considered to be “three nots”: “Not encouraging, not discouraging and not promoting” (不支持，不反对，不提倡) (Mountford, 2009: p.3). Although homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997 and was removed from the mental illnesses list in 2001, overly cautious and conservative policies towards homosexuality have resulted in a code of silence in both politics and society.
With regards to media policy and regulation, restrictions have been continuously imposed on the spread of homosexual-related media content in mainland China. For example, The Film Censorship Regulation published in 1997 stipulated that individual scenes, language or plotlines about homosexuality should be “corrected” and cut. The Official Notice on Ensuring that Broadcasting Strengthens and Corrects the Moral Character of Adolescents was issued in 2004 and re-promulgated in 2007, ruling language, scenes and plots about homosexuality, as “unhealthy” sexual content, and ruling that they be cut from broadcasts, films, and TV.
In 2008, Official Notice on the Restatement of Film Censorship Standards ruled that content containing “pornography, sex and vulgarisms… sexual abnormality, and homosexuality…” be cut and “corrected” again. In addition, laws and regulations also place broad restrictions on homosexual-related publications. The current publication licensing system makes it almost impossible for gay-related publications to hold a valid licence in mainland China, and their advertising revenue is cut off by law. As a result, the existing few gay-related publications in mainland China are distributed free-of-charge and function as “educative sources of information on health and HIV/AIDS information”. (ibid, 12-14).
Behind these formalised laws and regulations lies the prejudice and conceptual discrimination against homosexuals in Chinese society, which tends to associate homosexuality with something “abnormal” and “perverted”. Moreover, the failure of these media regulations to differentiate between sexual-oriented homosexual content and non sexual-oriented homosexual content to a large extent excludes them from Chinese media, with the exception of some news coverage of gay men in relation to HIV/AIDS. Despite the fact that homosexuality was removed from the list of mental illnesses by the Chinese Psychiatric Association (CPA) in 2001, there is still a real social stigma attached to gay men and lesbians. Homosexuality is still believed to have a “bad influence” on the “healthy” development of adolescents, according to the Official Notice of both 2004 and 2007.
The popularisation of the internet in China seems to bring new opportunities to Chinese homosexual communities, which have been marginalised by Chinese mainstream media. According to Jiang (2005), the first gay-oriented websites such as Gztz.org and Yangguang didai emerged in Mainland China in 1998. These websites, as well as online forums and chatrooms, became increasingly popular, opening up a new world for homosexuals in China.
Instead of cruising, with the risk of being seized by police, in parks, public toilets, and public baths, gay men may not feel marginalised and depressed in cyberspace. There has been a remarkable growth in the number of online gay communities due to the great demand for mutual emotional support. As a result, “a new name arose for the new identity” in China, namely, tongzhi1. Likewise, as Chou (2000) points out, the popularisation of the internet has made a significant contribution to the growth of tongzhi communities that appear to be “a pioneering force” in relation to building indigenous tongzhi discourses in a Chinese context. By the end of May 2004, there were approximately 360 tongzhi websites in China. As homosexuals appeared to be absent from Chinese mainstream media, cyberspace has fast become the supreme headquarters from which to resist public ignorance and spread accurate information, report related news, and resist the homophobia in the media, and from where gay culture can be created, developed, and spread.
Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate cyberspace’s role. Ho (2010: p.99) highlights the complex and constant processes of “state surveillance, commercialisation and identity reinvention” in Chinese cyberspace, which “ensures the misrepresentation of same-sex identity, but also produces as much homogeneity as diversity”. There seems to be a trend of cultural homogenisation in Chinese cyberspace in respect to gay issues. Foreign news about Pride Parade and same-sex marriage can be seen everywhere on Chinese gay websites; moreover, homogenous ideas and symbols which are based on Western sources tend to be used to mark gay identity.
The spread of the Western ideal of gay image through various media and news content results in the (re)production of stereotypes and misrepresentations which worship the Western gay scene as a “gay haven”. For example, leading Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba sent ten gay couples from its online contest We Do to “tie the knot” in Los Angeles. Rather than “a simple mimicry of patterns”, the cyberqueer techno-practices between local and global identities may promote “a melange of cultural categories” (Ho, 2010: p.106). In addition, gay websites in China are becoming increasingly commercialised and sexualised because of the high operating costs and little support from the government. Consequently, the growing commercialisation and sexualisation of these gay websites leads to a public misrepresentation of same-sex identity.
For Anwei and Yebin, this young, tech-savvy couple from rural China, the use of the internet and mobile chat program QQ did play an important role in helping them reach for help and moreover, to find each other. However, media technology only played a secondary role, as they stated in the interview: “Family support is the most significant factor” that supported them in coming such a long way.
Lianrui Jia is a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at York University in Toronto, Canada. Tianyang Zhou is a PhD candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex based in the department of Media and Film. His PhD research focuses on LGBTQ culture in contemporary China.
Chou, Wah-shan. Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies, Routledge, London, 2000.
Ho, L. W. W. (2010), Gay and Lesbian Subculture in Urban China. London: Rouledge.
Jiang, H. (2005), ICCGL: Cultural Communication via the Internet and GLBT Community Building in China, available at: https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/8687.
Mountford T. (2009) The Legal Status and Position of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in the People’s Republic of China, available at: http://iglhrc.org/content/china-legal-position-and-status-lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-people-people%E2%80%99s