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How moving countries can force you back into the closet

How moving countries can force you back into the closet

Aged 15 years old, I started coming out to my family and friends, which changed my life entirely. Not only did I learn a lot about myself, find self-acceptance, happiness and peace of mind about my life, identity and future. But I also found a new sense of self-worth, community as well as pride in who I was. From then onwards, my daily interactions with other people shifted from keeping a low profile and acting defensively towards going out into the world and becoming a lot more open and self-confident. Yet, this was a slow process that didn’t always go into one direction, as one negative experience could often ruin weeks or months of progress. Moreover, reading was an extremely useful and thought-provoking aspect of my coming-of-age, as articles, blogs and stories informed me about other people’s experiences, how I could learn from them and what the situation of LGBTQ people was overall – and where it was heading.

After ten years of living as a more or less confident gay young man, I got really used to being ‘out’ to basically anyone. I would – almost – never hide anymore and it started becoming much easier to tell new people I met, just as their reactions became increasingly normal. Also the general political development seemed to support this development as the share of society in support of gay marriage seemed to increase annually and every other few months a new country legalised gay this and gay that. While a lot of queer friends of mine started becoming a little complacent about this all, it made me only keener to follow the news and background details about the situation of LGBTQ people around the world. I became engrossed in literature about countries across Africa and Asia and their many individual fates, but yet it always felt quite removed from my every-day bubble of supporting friends and self-righteous articles and I never thought it would have much of a change in my life.

That all changed about four weeks ago when I moved to China.

Suddenly I found myself in an environment where the vast majority of society remains both conservative as well as ignorant about homosexuality, where many people disapproved of me without knowing anything about me, if they would know who I loved. This change was especially challenging since I moved to China together with my boyfriend. While we were used to introducing each other as a couple back at home, we now found ourselves struggling to figure out who we can come out to and who not, who might be alright with it and who might make trouble. We can no longer act naturally in public, but have to remind ourselves that holding hands or other intimacies are potentially dangerous and are best avoided. When people ask about us living together, we are forced to lie, claiming to be best friends. When I was approached at work by female colleagues about whether I had a girlfriend or not, I naturally said I didn’t – but couldn’t explain why, now facing having to fend off a group of female followers while feeling that I let down the love of my life.

Trying to find community was not easy either, as the usual language barrier is exacerbated in the LGBTQ community, partly by their non-existence, partly by them being underground or only to be found through local contacts. While it was normal for us to hang out with gay friends, go to gay venues or events or have mixed events regardless of sexuality that were open and inclusive, we now found ourselves in a straight-only environment that seems to exclude us, as soon as we were open about whom we are and how we feel.

Of course there are changes in Chinese society that we want to benefit from and form a little local community in which we can be who we are. I intend to come out to a female colleague that studied in the US and generally seems very accepting and tolerant. Through a common friend we are in touch with an LGBTQ local that might introduce us to an online community or fellow friends. We hope to have regular dinner parties with like-minded people, watch queer films or discuss other gay issues. I think, to a certain extent, things like these are what many LGBTQ people can do to change something little for the better in their immediate surroundings. I hope it will change something for the better in Wuxi, China.

Some recent court rulings in China and Hong Kong gave me hope for modest improvements for sexual minority rights and acceptance in the People’s Republic. The same can be said about some first Chinese queer TV Series, such as the 2016 Web-series ‘Addicted’ or the 2015 Online Series ‘Rainbow Family’, which are not just entertaining but also give valuable – if limited – insight into this huge but poorly understood world of LGBTQ China. However it does not remedy nor replace the comfort and safety of being protected by law and accepted by society.

 

After all, the situation of Chinese sexual minorities is extremely pitiful as their vast majority continues to be forced into getting married to someone they do not love and do not feel attracted to. Talking to some gay men on a previous trip through the country, I was touched by their accepting of these unfair limitations on their individual freedom and chance of happiness by their family and society as a whole. Yet, for as long as the state controls such huge swaths of society and people’s lives its influence on limiting what is seen as ‘immoral behaviour’ will continue to be accepted. Under such slogans, the state has conducted raids and closures of rare gay bars or clubs for often abstruse reasons or claims. Also, most queer issues have disappeared from any media in the country as the government regards them as ‘inappropriate’ and negative influences on society. I’m not sure what must feel worse to those many young LGBTQ people in the world’s most populous nation: not being accepted by family, friends and society, or being officially repressed by a government that literally regards you as immoral for being who you are and loving somebody of your choosing.

 

Written by Fabien Schuessler 

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