You are not alone!
When studying in cold and windy Finland, it was quite easy finding like-minded people and other LGBTQ people since almost everybody speaks English and relevant organisations are open, online and easy to connect with in the real world. After a few weeks, I had found a couple of good queer friends and volunteered for a local LGBTQ community organisation. On Friday nights we went to the local gay bar for some karaoke and had queer dinner parties with friends and co-students.
When arriving to our new job and life here in China, a very different story unfolded. While we already made plans for queer movie nights and dinner parties with our new Chinese gay friends, after arrival we realised that this would be much trickier than planned. In real-life or at work, it was basically impossible to meet other LGBTQ people, as barely anyone would be out in public and there were no gay bars or clubs to be found. We couldn’t really tell anyone at work that we’re gay ourselves for fear of being fired. We considered using gay apps or websites to make other queer friends but everything we found was people looking for sexual encounters. Suddenly we felt kind of stuck alone in an illiberal and very much hetero-normative environment.
After a few months, we got a hint online that there is a gay bar somewhere in the city centre, hidden in the underground floor of a shopping arcade. We had been to that mall before but never checked the areas below as much, certainly not late at night. When we came down we became doubtful, since there was nobody around, all shops were closed and many even seemed abandoned. We were about to turn back when we noticed the bar’s name from online on one of the doors. We couldn’t hear music or see any lights or people but when we opened the door, there was indeed a gay bar inside, full of people drinking, smoking and playing card games to the joyful tunes of pop music inside the dark barroom.
Most guests were visibly surprised of the presence of two ‘laowai’ – foreigners, no wonder given the scarce information online when even two people that actively looked for such establishments for months couldn’t find it until now. We quickly came into contact with some of the people inside that told us their stories and about their everyday-lives, problems and news. One young guy from far-western Xinjiang Province was staying in the city for a few weeks to get over a bad break-up, after his boyfriend’s parents found out about the two dating and made sure they would never see each other again. His story particularly touched me as I’m sure it would have touched anyone that ever had their heart broken before.
Another young man told me about the difficulties of dating as a college student in China, as most students live in tightly packed dormitory rooms sharing with several other students, while most co-students surely like to gossip about each other’s dating lives. There seems to be extremely little space for young people even in university to explore their sexuality or follow their feelings when they are in love. Busy class schedules and frequent parental visits as well as conservative campus rules make sure students head rarely leave the textbooks.
A third young man and apparently the owner of the bar told me about the complexities of opening and running an LGBTQ-friendly company and how difficult it was to spread the word through the local gay community since public advertisements were not an option and too much online presence may lead to unwelcome visitors or a police crackdown. Similarly, it was very tricky to find a place willing to rent out space for a gay bar, since landlords usually want a lot of information about business details and plans, a fact that is widespread throughout Chinese society, as police officers take notes of local residents work and other personal life details or work places enquiring widely into people’s private lives.
A last young chap we chatted with told us about the rife troubles of many LGBTQ people but also all young people in general, their families’ intrusion into their private lives, making it commonly their issue whether and whom you are dating and when you will finally fulfil your filial duty of getting married and producing offspring for your parents to show off. At the very latest by their late mid-twenties, virtually all Chinese people get frequently pestered about their dating life and when they will finally get married. If they encounter that they want to wait and not receive ‘help’ by their families to meet suitable partners, they are often labelled as ‘selfish’. When asking about that into the round, the atmosphere quickly turns sullen and I receive a lot of nods. Most want to live their life freely and have fun, before they will have to get married to a woman in a few years.
That’s also partially why it can be so hard for many young queer people in China to find a long-term, stable relationship, as many young people are trying to experiment and enjoy their lives for as long as they can without worrying about the future or relationships and emotional engagements that they will sooner or later have to break up anyway. Several of them could tell stories of having dated someone for weeks, months or even years before being broken up with because the other one had to get married. Some cut off contact with all their gay friends, others start living a double life. One can only imagine the pain and suffering that causes on all people involved throughout a lifetime.
Some of the people in the bar seemed very adamant and feisty in their intention to eventually come out towards their parents or at least never to get married to a woman. Others seemed more reserved, explaining the importance of traditional values and not wanting to disappoint their parents or even extended families. Keeping up appearances and not losing face are also prevalent, as I was explained. Suddenly the conversation turned towards my background and what life was like for gays where I came from. Even though I was used to talking positively about the support and rapid improvements in both politics and society, the subject suddenly made me feel uncomfortable, as I was reminded during the evening just how desperate and hopeless the life of people that are just like me in everything that matters was here in China.
Their faces filled with jealousy and their eyes got really big upon hearing about the realities of gay life, the feeling of being out and about nearly everybody among family, friends and even at work. When I told them Germany’s former Foreign Secretary and the mayor of the German capital Berlin were gay, their mouths were wide-open in disbelief.
Just before leaving the bar I was added to the group-chat of the bar’s regulars, so we could keep in touch and get involved. Obviously the language barrier and the sheer amount of messaging going on from day to day kept me from being always up to date with every conversation but I was just happy to see what kind of small community these people had carved out for themselves, despite the hostility around them. Yet, instead of the entirely supportive social network, I was quick to find out just how much of the conversations were related to gossip and – again – sex.
Now I was aware and in a way used to such aspects of queer culture in Europe too. One would be naive to assume all that visitors to Berlin’s or London’s gay clubs were only after a good dance. Yet in a society as restricted as this it was a bit of a shame to see that when there finally is a little bit of a community forming, instead of addressing common grievances and supporting each other through family disputes and pressure, most participants seemed mostly focussed on finding the next night time adventure to distract from the harsh realities of their every-day lives. Not exactly the vibrant LGBTQ community we were hoping for with our dinner parties and movie nights.
Yet I couldn’t really blame them considering the long working hours, strong family pressure and widely non-existent social spaces for the more than 60 million LGBTQ people all over China. I would like to organise some cultural or social events outside of a bar environment, yet the language barrier remains strong and it is easy to come across as arrogant or out-of-touch. But seeing those great people I met that night in the bar, it’s worth the fight.
By – Fabien Schuessler