Queer Culture in China

In a previous post on the BConnected blog, I wrote about doing research in China and the events leading up to finding the courage to explore the queer community in China. At the end of the post, I wrote, “I ended up seeking out a queer community through a network of lesbian bars, which is a blog post for another day.” I give you that blog post now. 

Note: In my previous post, I explained Uyghur culture around queerness. Uyghur is an ethnic minority in China. When I lived in China, I lived with, dated, and interacted with both Uyghur and Han Chinese people. In this post, I primarily focus on the Han Chinese culture around queerness. Enjoy! 

“My parents think I’m weird.”

My petite Chinese friend sat across from me, her arms and legs like sticks poking out from her baggy black t-shirt and long cargo shorts. 

“They think I’m a T,” she elaborated, rolling her eyes and shrugging.

“What’s a T?” I asked. 

“A female homosexual,” she said with a small smile the way people often do when they teach me Chinese slang. “Nvde tongxinglian.”

“Oh,” I said, nodding. I faced my soup bowl and slurped on my noodles. 

I was in China conducting field research for my doctoral dissertation. I had been living in China on and off for almost four years already. I am proficient in the language, but at the time of this conversation was not familiar with “T” as a slang term yet.  

“Yeah,” she continued. “Whenever I’m with a female friend who wants to hold my hand, I always slap it away and tell her to stop because people are going to think I’m a T.” She indicated a slapping motion and mimed pulling her hand away quickly as she frowned.

In China, it’s common for straight girls to hold hands when walking together. But for a tomboy like my friend, people probably would assume she was a lesbian. And that concerned her.

I wanted so badly in that moment to say I was bi. I had already looked up that word in the English-Chinese dictionary months before. The official translation was shuangxinglian, literally translating as “double sex love.” I didn’t know the slang for it yet. 

But the disgusted look on her face kept me silent. For the time being. 

My friend’s fear that someone might think she was a lesbian indicated that she had experienced and/or witnessed homophobia and discrimination against queer people in China, just like in the United States. 

Based on conversations like this one, I had for many years assumed that Chinese culture was significantly more “backward” than the United States when it came to accepting LGBTQ+ culture.

On that day slurping noodles, however, my friend gave me that simple vocabulary word, “T.” This word allowed me a feeling of possibility: If there was slang for it, there was a culture for it.

I soon found my assumptions about queer culture specifically and freedom more generally were challenged while living in China. I assumed that LGBTQ+ people in China lived lives of secrecy and oppression. I found something much more complex. Culture is not so black-and-white as that limited knowledge of a “freedom” and “oppression” dichotomy. I had put backward and progressive into neat boxes, but it was more complicated than that. 

I later learned that Ts are masculine-presenting lesbians (T for Tomboy) and Ps are feminine-presenting lesbians (P for Pretty). Me? I’m an H because, being bi and androgynous, I’m “Half.” (Chinese often incorporates slang from English using the first letter of the English word.)

Lesbian Bars in China

“I’m dying a slow death by celibacy,” I wrote to my friend Kevin back home a few months after the noodle-slurping conversation with my tomboy friend. Despite having the new vocabulary, I still hadn’t taken the necessary steps to seek out the relatively hidden queer community in China yet. I kept procrastinating, justifying my reluctance fueled by fear with excuses: I was too tired. I was too busy. 

Feeling a raw hunger for touch and starved from lack of physical affection, I finally searched for “female homosexual bars near me” on Baidu, the Chinese version of Google. 

The results immediately revealed that, besides T and P which are gendered slang terms for lesbians, the general non-gendered slang for “female homosexual” in Chinese is most commonly “LaLa” or simply “Les.” While clicking around the results, I found an online group for Les in my region. I discovered addresses for four different Les Ba—what queer women in China call a “Lesbian Bar”—around the city in online forums. I picked one called “Joy” with the most detailed directions—they intentionally kept the directions ambiguous and address hidden to keep the locations secret—and decided to go on the upcoming Thursday.

Discovering Joy 

I walked around campus that Thursday with an extra spring in my step. For the first time in a long time, I had something to look forward to. Throughout the day, I could feel my face starting to flush. I tried to calm down by taking deep breaths. I decided to go early to find the place while it was still light out. 

While I was on the bus, my stomach filled with butterflies and my chest was tight. I kept looking at the directions I had copied down in my best handwriting, the Chinese characters scrawled on a piece of lined paper like a grade-schooler. 

When I got off the bus, I walked down the main street, hoping I would see a sign or an alley that was like the one described in the directions. All the directions said were, “After you get to the mall, it’s down an alley next to a small store,” but there were six alleys and all of them had stores. They purposefully made it hard to find for safety reasons. It was not easy being queer in China.  

“How was I supposed to find it? This is crazy,” I thought. But I was too scared to ask for directions. 

I turned down one of the alleys. I passed shops’ advertisements for “adult health preservation products,” which is a euphemism in Chinese for sex toys. I passed massage parlors and hair salons. I passed hotels advertising one- or two-hour stays. 

I walked to one end of the alley. It was getting dark.

Finally, I noticed the English word JOY spray-painted on a wall with a sign on the door saying, “Only adults can enter.” I knew then that I was in the right place. 

Inside Joy

I was pleasantly surprised to find a relaxing, intimate pub environment. The room was dark, with softly lit lamps on each table and a couple colorful, rotating lights on the wall. Soft rock in English played at a reasonable volume in the background. Quirky and funny decorations covered the walls, including pictures of naked women. 

I was the first and only person in the place—it was still early. I sat down with a beer and my phone. I did some breathing exercises to calm my rapidly beating heart.

After a time, a tall woman approached the table, her hips swaying. Holding her bottle of beer, she whipped her short bob back. 

“Come sit with me,” she invited. She extended a hand in greeting: “You can call me ‘Big Yao.’” Chinese people often add “Big” (da) or “Little” (xiao) to the beginning of their first name as a type of casual nickname.

I got up, walked over to her table, slipped into the booth across from her, and introduced myself.  

“Where are you from?” I asked, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans, willing my breathing to calm.

She explained that she recently moved to this city to be closer to her elderly parents and lived in a small city about 30 minutes away. 

Her gaze left mine as she began scrolling and tapping on her phone, taking long drags of her cigarette. Feeling awkward in the silence, I desperately searched for something to continue my discovery of this familiar and yet unfamiliar world.  

 “Does your mom ever pressure you to get married?” I asked, a common topic of conversation among women of all sexualities and ages between 20-40 years in China. 

“I am married! I have a 4-year old son.” 

“Oh,” I nodded and took another gulp of beer, looking down at the table again. 

“In China, we believe that because our parents gave us life, we have to give them back some things in return. Mostly, they need us to have children for them, to carry on their family name and to honor the family ancestors through filial piety. Like many my age in China, I’m their only child, so I had no other choice. I got married and I had a son for them.” She shrugged.

Although many in China identify as atheists, the tradition of filial piety is its own form of religiosity that has implications for LGBTQ+ people. 

“Now that I’ve done that, I can pursue my own needs,” she explained.

“So…is your husband gay?”

“He’s not gay. It’s not a xinghun exactly,” she said casually.  

Xinghun translated into English literally means “marriage in appearance.” In the Chinese-English dictionary, the definition given for xinghun is: “a marriage between a gay man and a lesbian arranged in response to parental expectations of a conventional marriage.”

“My husband is one of those IT guys. All he needs is his computer and his video games, and he’s completely satisfied,” she said, giggling and shaking her head. “We don’t live together. He understands me and my…situation, my needs. He doesn’t care. We have an agreement where I don’t bother him and he doesn’t bother me.”

“Are you out to your parents?” I asked. 

A loud laugh erupted from Big Yao and she covered her mouth with manicured fingers adorned with long, white fake nails. 

“Are you kidding me? My parents have no idea. They would for sure not be able to accept this lifestyle,” Big Yao rolled her eyes and clinked her glass with mine again before taking a sip. 

My awkwardness started fade and my heartbeat slowed. I was starting to feel warm and dizzy, my head pounding a bit, the warmth of the alcohol in my belly willing me to be more confident.  

Freedom?

Big Yao’s friend, Little Ma, then arrived and slipped her broad and stocky frame into the booth next to Big Yao and across from me. She brought sunflower seeds for us, and we chatted as we cracked the salty shells between our teeth. I welcomed something to do with my restless hands. 

“It’s not often that we get foreigners in here,” Little Ma commented. “You’re so fortunate that gay marriage is legal in your country! I think I will probably be dead before I witness anything like that in my lifetime, but it’s promising,” Little Ma pondered.

Same-sex sexual activity was illegal in mainland China until 1997 and classified as a mental disorder until 2001. For many of the LGBTQ+ people I met in China, they believed that legalizing gay marriage is still a long time in the future for mainland China. 

“So, are you out to your parents?” Big Yao asked me. I lied and said I was. The truth was that I was still scared to come out to my conservative and religious parents back home.    

“Americans sure are more open and accepting than Chinese people are!” Little Ma said while both nodded. 

My heart sank with shame in my lie.

America’s inheritance of Puritan values and a recent rise of the conservative and religious right meant that in some ways the US was far behind China when it came to social acceptance of LGBTQ+ populations. China’s atheist culture made it slightly easier in some ways, but its filial piety combined with the One Child Policy meant that many younger Chinese people had a lot of pressure from their parents to get married and have a kid to carry on the ancestral line. 

But those, too, are generalizations. The reality is that gay culture is complex in both countries, and many still face discrimination and oppression in both institutional and cultural ways, while some experience freedom in other ways.

Still, I felt like a coward, hiding in the closet when I felt that they were so much braver than I to come out in a more hostile environment.

“So. Can you own a gun in America?” Little Ma asked, breaking my daydream.

I explained gun ownership in the US—how people see them as symbols of freedom and some people feel safer with them than without them. I told them about the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Big Yao and Little Ma looked at each other with their mouths open, and then turned back to me with their mouths tightened into frowns. 

“That is so scary!” 

“In America, freedom comes first. In China, safety comes first,” I said.

“What good is freedom if you’re dead?” Little Ma asked. 

I laughed and shook my head, at a loss for words. 

I never had the chance to see Big Yao again, but Little Ma and I became friends as I frequented Joy Les Ba in the months that followed.

In the US, we have institutional protections on many freedoms, such as gay marriage and gun ownership. China has few homicides by gun compared to the US and has an almost universal health care system. In America, freedom can be impinged by fear of losing healthcare or gun violence. On the other hand, the Chinese government impinges on freedom in other ways, such as freedom of speech.

In the end, what does freedom mean? As my time in China continued, the concept of freedom became more subjective than I realized. For some, having a xinghun marriage was a mode of freedom. For others, legalizing gay marriage was a symbol of freedom. For me, finally making the decision to come out to my parents was a decision about liberation as well. For all of us queers, freedom and oppression come in many forms from the family to society.  

How do we understand the human condition and human stories without reducing them down to generalizations and stereotypes? We can understand that behind every country, culture, and government, are individual humans with their own stories of love and loss, of freedom and suffering, of liberation and safety.

Blog written by Saar Tynen

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