Trapped between Layers of Trauma: Growing Up Queer and Uyghur in China 

In a previous post on the BConnected blog, I wrote about doing human-subject research in Far West China. I lived among the Turkic minority peoples (the Uyghurs) living in the capital city, Urumchi, a large metropolitan area that stood in stark contrast to the vast and sparsely populated desert that surrounded it. Those three years were my first time living in a Muslim community. I struggled at first with my bisexuality and non-conforming gender identity as a stranger and an outsider. I continue the story here. 

A couple of months after the day in the park with Merhaba that I had described in my previous post, a male Uyghur friend Hemrahjan and I decided to go to the local amusement park and walk around people watching. It was the first day of Eid, which is the celebration after the 30-day fast during Ramadan and a major holiday in Muslim communities. 

As we were exiting the park, we saw two young men in their early twenties walking by wearing identical outfits: tight black pants and pink shirts with a hood. We had been seeing people—young and old, men and women—walking around all day wearing identical outfits. Wearing identical outfits was a local tradition for close friends and family on the first day of Eid. 

“Would men in America wear matching outfits like that?” Hemrahjan asked, pointing his nose in the direction of the men with pink shirts.   

“Not really, men don’t really do that too much in my country,” I answered. 

“I think it’s really weird for men to wear the same outfit.” 

“Oh, really? Why?” 

“I just think it’s wrong. It makes them look kind of gay.” 

“But it’s so common. There are a lot of men wearing matching outfits today,” I countered. 

“Well. There are also a lot of messages written in the men’s bathrooms in Urumchi, saying ‘Add this number for this gay chat group,’ or, ‘call this number if you’re gay.’ But there isn’t any of that in my rural hometown,” he said. 

“Do you think that might be a reflection of your hometown’s prejudice that kept gay men there silent or afraid?” I asked. 

“I think homosexuality is a bad influence from the city, or from Han Chinese culture maybe. Why else would those messages on the bathroom stalls be so common in Urumchi, but nonexistent in my Uyghur-majority hometown?” He was drawing causation from correlation. He didn’t see that the nonexistent messages didn’t mean that gay men didn’t exist, but rather that they were made silent by the culture. This was a common belief about Uyghurs my age. One of my friends said to me once, “I heard there are a lot of gays and lesbians in Urumchi, but we have never heard of it in my hometown. Maybe this homosexuality is one of the bad things about development and cultural change from urbanization.”

“I don’t like it when Uyghur men do stuff like dress the same,” he continued. “It freaks me out. Feeling weird about gayness is just a kind of an obsession I have.”

I felt as though I had been slapped in the face. Hemrahjan was one of my closest friends. His feminine-of-center gender expression had always made me feel comfortable with him. For a long time, I had thought maybe he was queer like me. His words hurt. 

Was it possible that this was an expression of internalized homophobia? I couldn’t help but think, trying to justify his biting judgments. 

Hemrahjan associated homosexuality with urban life and Han influence. He judged other men for dressing the same and for writing messages on bathroom stalls. In doing so, he policed other Uyghur men’s bodies. In the backdrop of a military police state, policing was not limited to the Chinese state, but enforced on bodies by the Uyghur community themselves. As their community was under threat of cultural genocide, holding onto whatever traditions they could was important for them. Many in the community grasped and held on to their morals as hard and as tight as they could, even though this meant detrimental discrimination toward the LGBTQ+ community.

While Hemrahjan declared his disgust over these expressions of possible queerness, it was clear to me from his description of the “very common” messages on bathroom stalls in men’s bathrooms that the queer community was nevertheless alive and well in Urumchi. I went exploring to find it. 

I eventually found a network of queer Uyghurs online at first. A number of them reached out individually to meet with me, eager to share their experiences with a researcher and hoping to share their experiences with the outside world. Patigul was one such Uyghur I met through some other queer Uyghur friends on WeChat. They were an Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) transmasculine person. Patigul was wide and stocky with a short and simple bowl haircut and husky voice. They wore sneakers and men’s clothes. They never put on make-up. For Uyghurs, this was a big deal because most Uyghur females adorned make-up daily and excessively. 

I use they/them pronouns for Patigul. Although in Uyghur the third person pronoun (u) is not gendered, I feel this is the best translation to describe Patigul because in English this pronoun choice best describes their genderqueer presentation. 

When coming to meet me at a restaurant one afternoon, they gave the phone to the cab driver so that I could give the driver directions to the restaurant. This was common practice at the time before smartphones were widespread and the restaurant we were meeting at didn’t have an address. On the phone with me, the Han cab driver referred to Patigul as “xiaohuozi,” a slang term meaning “guy” or “dude” and only used for men or boys in Chinese. 

“I call me that all the time,” Patigul explained to me later. “I don’t really fit in to either male or female categories. But I don’t mind.” 

We sat across from each other at the restaurant holding cups of tea to warm our hands. We were in a Uyghur restaurant and we spoke in Uyghur, so Patigul was worried someone would overhear us talking. Staring at me without blinking, they leaned across the table and maintained strong eye contact, their lower lip quivering. They stayed silent for several moments. We just stared at each other, breathing and not knowing what to say. I could see they were about to cry and all I could do was keep maintaining eye contact and hold their pain for a moment but I felt like collapsing under the weight of it. 

They continued in a low voice, not mentioning their queerness, but talking about a subject many Uyghurs in their twenties are concerned about: marriage. 

“My parents are freaking out because I’m not married yet, and I don’t think either they or I can stand it anymore,” they sighed. “My parents are so scared I’m going to miss my childbearing years. They’re forcing me to get married.” Their eyes suddenly grew darker, and they looked down to gaze into their tea. Without looking at me, they continued, “I can’t do it. I have got to get out of here. I have no choice but to leave. I mean, I want to leave China.” They looked up at me again, tears pooling in their eyes. Knowing that Patigul would most likely never be able to actually leave China due to the chains of structural racism, imperialism and colonialism, I encouraged them to try to find a safe and happy life without having to leave. 

I tried to comfort them and offer some hope. I said that maybe things will get better in the future. I said that maybe it is our role to be on the frontier of changing society, even if that means sacrificing ourselves for the freedom of future generations. The sacrifice I was asking them to make was to risk hate and discrimination by being out but slowly changing society around in the refusal to conform. I encouraged Patigul to move to the city, get an apartment, and live their life as they wanted and as open as possible, while keeping in as little contact with their parents as possible. Patigul sat staring into the tea, their eyes blinking rapidly and face twitching as their breathing quickened. They shook their head back and forth.  

“Your country and this place are so different. Here, we can’t even talk about our situations openly in a restaurant let alone be open and marry like you can,” they countered back. 

In my mind, I had transplanted foreign romantic ideas to a context still suffering the weight of colonization. I had utopian visions of building a path to the frontier of change that imagined a new life for queer people. I brought the perspective of a privileged white person. I did not take into account that the freedom to protest and live against the grain—to be “abnormal”, to be queer—is not always feasible. Patigul didn’t have the money to live on their own in the city as I suggested, let alone be out and proud. 

They didn’t really have the resources to escape abroad either. Patigul was trapped by the limitations of society, family, and nation.  

They didn’t have the privilege of forging new societies or lives. People like Patigul are the true brave ones, as they must navigate hell on earth with two choices: being forced to marry or being forced to become a refugee. Indeed, many queer refugees do come to the United States seeking asylum from the oppression of their own families and countries abroad.  

“I love to eat, that’s why I’m so fat,” they said, trying to insert some light humor and chuckling while dipping a piece of naan into their tea as we waited for the Big Plate Chicken (dapanji) to be ready. “You’re pretty, not fat like I am! You should eat more.”

Looking down suddenly, their eyes filled with tears again and their voice wavered. “I like living at home with my parents. I would stay here and take care of them, and just be single my whole life. That I could bear. I could accept it; I could stand it. To take care of them in their old age would be a great honor, and I could live out my days alone, working as a photographer in my hometown until my death. If I could choose, that’s the destiny I would pick. But my parents will not stop pressuring me to get married. And I fear dishonoring them.

“But I cannot bear to get married, and I cannot bear to stay with my parents any longer under the pressure and their unending disgust for me. Even though I want to stay—I like Xinjiang, I like my hometown, I want to be among my own people—I have no choice but to go abroad. The only way my parents can accept me is if I run away. So that’s my plan.”

A rock sat in my stomach and all I could do was nod and keep eating the chicken in front of me. 

In 2017, a year after Patigul and I had the conversation above, the Chinese state confiscated Uyghurs’ passports. Patigul’s shimmer of hope to go abroad dwindled. Patigul decided to try moving to the city of Urumchi instead, as I had suggested earlier.

Patigul was messaging me all the time, and I didn’t know how to help. I hoped that meeting with two Uyghur lesbians, Salamet and Guzelnur, would help Patigul find community. We found an empty bar in a Han Chinese neighborhood one afternoon, ordered tea and spoke in hushed tones in Uyghur—chances were pretty good that anybody else wouldn’t be able to understand us this way since we were in a Han Chinese neighborhood where they didn’t speak Uyghur. 

“It’s really hard to find an apartment in Urumchi if you’re Uyghur, you know that right?” Salamet told Patigul. “For us Uyghurs who were born in Urumchi and own a home, it’s still okay, but right now with the [political] situation…it’s hard for Uyghurs from the countryside to rent in the city. Really, really hard. The government isn’t allowing Uyghurs to rent houses at all. The situation is really tight right now. It’s almost impossible to find a house.”

An Islamophobic and racist fear and paranoia gripped the city of Urumchi in 2017. A video of Uyghurs who had joined ISIS in Syria went viral. Uyghurs attacked the US embassy in Afghanistan. In response, the entire region panicked. In an effort to appease the local Han population, control the Uyghurs as a cheap labor source, and maintain “safety” and “security” in the region, the government embarked on a mass incarceration campaign that landed over one million Uyghurs in concentration camps in the countryside. Rounding them up in the city, sending them back to the countryside, and refusing to rent homes to any Uyghurs in the city was a key part of keeping Uyghurs under strict lockdown, keeping space in the city more available to the Han, and keeping more Uyghurs in the countryside for easy incarceration. Patigul was just one of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs who were affected by this policy.  

“What about on a university campus?” Patigul asked, turning to me. She hoped to enroll in English classes.

“Maybe,” I shrugged. “But there’s no guarantee.” 

“Because my parents are forcing me to get married. I need to get out of there,” Patigul said, starting to sound panicked. 

“Can you do anything else though?” Salamet asked. “Because it’s almost impossible to go abroad right now. You know because of the political situation. Nobody has passports. It’s going to be really, really hard for you to get out. And it’s going to be next to impossible for you to find an apartment in Urumchi that will take Uyghurs.”

“I can’t stay here, I can’t live at home,” Patigul insisted. 

“I might have to marry a gay man,” Guzelnur explained. “I don’t know. My younger cousins are all married and everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to get married. I just keep saying, ‘I will, I will,’ but the truth is that I don’t know.”

When we tried to suggest that Patigul try marrying a gay man, a common practice called “sham marriages” among Uyghur and Chinese LGBTQ people, Patigul shook her head no. 

Patigul was trapped. They had no desire to marry a gay man, and who can blame them for not wanting to enter into a life of falsehood and secrecy? However, because of the political situation, they were not able to go abroad nor move to the city either. Patigul was trapped in the middle of multiple outside forces that are stripping them of their freedom and autonomy.

Like Patigul, many queer Uyghurs found themselves ostracized by their own families as well as discriminated against by Han Chinese people. Patigul did not have sovereignty over their own body. They were being forced into marriage not only with someone they doesn’t know or love, but also with a gender that they cannot bear to accept. If they were to get married, they would have to live with that bodily and emotional trauma for the rest of their life. Losing sovereignty over one’s own body is part of the reproduction of state and colonial violence.

Queer people’s interaction with the state and colonial violence overlapped with trauma in the family. Patigul was being forced into marriage and planned to run away as the only escape from the violence on their own body. But racist policies in their own country as well as in the US meant that there was no hope for escape. State and colonial violence is oftenreproduced in the family and on the body for the most vulnerable populations. The situation for Uyghurs only got worse as 2017 continued, when people continued to disappear into internment camps. 

  • Sam Tynen