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Two countries, one system: like Russia, China is riding a wave of state-sponsored homophobia

Russia and China are currently united by many things — a natural gas pipeline, mutual antipathy towards Washington, authoritarian politics, and, increasingly, a state-sponsored homophobic agenda. In both countries, LGBTQ activists are persecuted, open homosexuality is banned from television, and the display of rainbow flags is penalized. In China, supporters of tolerance towards sexual minorities are considered agents of the West, but ordinary LGBTQ people enjoy relative freedom. The Chinese authorities adhere to the principle of “don't support, don't encourage, don't condemn.” In Russia, however, the authorities systematically portray the so-called “international LGBT movement” as an extremist enemy. As a result, activists — and even regular visitors to gay friendly establishments — are targeted as potential threats to the state itself.

  • Ancient passion

  • Looking for foreign influence

  • Cracking down on “sissies” and BL dramas

  • Activism in disfavor

  • The online realm

  • Cool indifference

  • Fear of family

In May 2023, after 15 years of operation, the Beijing LGBT Center closed down due to pressure from state authorities and local residents. In recent years, the center, one of the last of its kind in the country, faced frequent relocations, event cancellations, and harassment of its staff. Alongside cultural events, the center provided psychological counseling, maintained a directory of LGBTQ-friendly doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople, and offered HIV testing. It defended gay rights in court and conducted nationwide surveys on issues faced by sexual minorities, sometimes in collaboration with the UN Development Program. The center relied heavily on hundreds of volunteers, who campaigned for transgender rights and trained psychotherapists to work with other clients. Now, many of these volunteers have either left China or gone underground.

This is the outcome of an anti-LGBTQ policy that has been intensifying over recent years. In many ways, it mirrors the approach taken in Russia, lesbian Zhao Qin told The Insider. She left a southern Chinese metropolis to study in Japan and does not plan to return home.

“Currently, the authorities are canceling any event related to LGBT issues, including queer film screenings, shutting down groups that protect LGBT and women's rights, imprisoning queers, especially activists, and banning any LGBT terms and representation in the media, such as the word 'gay'.”

All of this is familiar to the LGBTQ community in Russia. However, the respective persecution meted out by Beijing and Moscow differ in significant ways.

Ancient passion

Chinese culture has acknowledged homosexuality for centuries. This is evident in the traditional words and phrases used to describe same-sex love. “Passion of the cut sleeve” refers to a legend about Emperor Ai of Han, who ruled in the 1st century BC. One day, his favorite, Dong Xian, fell asleep with his head on the emperor's arm. Rather than disturb his beloved, the emperor cut off his robe's sleeve. Another similar euphemism is “passion of Longyang,” named after the favorite of an emperor from the 3rd century BC.

In the 17th century, the deity Tu'er Shen emerged in Fujian province as the patron of men who love men. Tu'er Shen was originally a soldier named Hu Tianbao, executed for his attraction to an official. Although he faced punishment in the afterlife, the judges showed him mercy, recognizing that love motivated his crime. The cult of Tu'er Shen became so popular that authorities began punishing its followers and even introduced a law banning all same-sex relations, not just those involving payment (although the punishment was still quite mild).

During the Middle Ages, homophobia was more prevalent than in ancient times, yet in Fujian province, unions between two men were recognized, at least for a period, and female homosexuality remained entirely unregulated by law. After 1907, when the ban on sex between men was lifted, tolerance of same-sex relationships was largely restored, albeit imperfectly.

There is a crucial distinction that sets China apart not only from Russia, but also from most Western countries when it comes to LGBTQ matters. A specialist in East Asian culture — one who preferred to remain anonymous for safety reasons — explains that:

“In China, there have never been religious prohibitions against homosexual relationships, unlike in Christianity. Consequently, the homosexual tradition has always been deeply embedded in Chinese culture and literature. It's not an imported concept but rather an inherent, internal one. For instance, two of the famous 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove' from the 3rd century were openly homosexual, as documented in literature. In one of the four classic Chinese novels familiar to every cultured individual, 'Dream of the Red Chamber' (18th century), there are depictions of homosexual scenes. Therefore, attempts to combat homosexuality as a 'foreign contagion' are destined to fail.”
The homosexual tradition has always been deeply embedded in Chinese culture and literature. It's not an imported concept but rather an inherent, internal one

Historically, China did not differentiate between heterosexual and homosexual people the way Western societies do. Instead, emphasis was placed on maintaining a hierarchical class structure and fulfilling familial obligations. Homosexuality was tolerated so long as people fulfilled their duties such as marrying and continuing the family lineage, meaning that the recent crackdown on LGBTQ rights as part of a campaign against “foreign influence” is a new phenomenon.

Again, this does not mean that China has always acted in an enlightened way towards its sexual minorities. In 1979, the country passed a law allowing police to arrest gay people for “hooliganism” — the disruption of public order — but this law was repealed in 1997, thereby decriminalizing same-sex relationships once again in China. Four years later, homosexuality was even removed from the official list of mental illnesses.

Accustomed to this state of affairs, LGBTQ people began forming communities, publishing magazines, and opening clubs and bars. The authorities did not interfere, ordinary citizens hardly protested, and a vibrant queer culture emerged in essentially all major cities. Then Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Looking for foreign influence

After ending the “one-child policy” in 2015, the Chinese government introduced subsidies for young parents. Still, boosting birth rates and marriage numbers remains a challenge. In 2023, Xi personally stressed the need to cultivate a new culture of marriage and child-rearing to guide young people toward family formation. The prohibition of same-sex marriage and state-sponsored homophobia stem from the same objective: encouraging everyone to contribute to increasing birth rates.

After ending the “one-child policy” in 2015, the government introduced subsidies for young parents, yet boosting birth rates and marriage numbers remains a challenge

Family holds a critically important role in Chinese culture. The younger generation is expected to carry on the family lineage, and reluctance to have children is frowned upon in more traditional families. Parents of LGBTQ people also face pressure, as they have “failed” to raise children who fulfill their family obligations. As a result, it is not uncommon for gay men and lesbians to enter into marriages to satisfy their parents. In China, terms like “tunzi” and “tunfu” exist — referring to a “gay wife” and “lesbian husband,” respectively.

In an atmosphere of rising geopolitical tensions between East and West, Chinese authorities have also begun to portray the country’s LGBTQ citizens as potential threats to national security. As early as 2012, Yuan Peng, an expert on the United States and president of the Chinese Academy of Contemporary International Relations, wrote in People's Daily about Western attempts to influence society through human rights activists, underground religious figures, dissidents, internet influencers, and vulnerable groups including LGBTQ people.

This trend is also observed by Lin Sun, a gender researcher from Guangzhou. “The government clearly perceives Western influence in LGBT activism. Recent events have underscored this, such as the prohibition of rainbow flags at concerts,” he notes, citing the example of Taiwanese pop singer A-Mei's concert in August 2023, where attendees wearing rainbow flags on their shirts were denied entry.

Government concerns are heightened by the fact that LGBTQ-themed events often occur at Western embassies and receive support from abroad. However, organized sexual minorities represent just one of many potential enemies. According to the authorities, independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are typically funded from overseas due to challenges in securing funding domestically, are viewed as a threat. But while large NGOs operating in China are required to register with the government, up until recently the authorities often turned a blind eye to the activities of unregistered small organizations, including those focused on LGBTQ issues.

However, in 2017, China enacted a law regulating all foreign NGOs. Now, these organizations are monitored and registered by the Public Security Bureau. They are prohibited from raising funds and recruiting staff within China, and their activities must comply with Chinese laws. As a result, the number of foreign organizations rapidly decreased; the law significantly impacted LGBTQ groups, as many foreign NGOs had been operating unofficially and now faced increased difficulty registering. While it is somewhat easier to register as commercial organizations, these too are under strict government scrutiny.

Since 2021, China has seen a new wave of restrictions. Lin Sun, along with many other researchers, partially attributes this to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to strict lockdowns in the country:

“Like any other public crisis, COVID-19 resulted in heightened state control over the populace. The technologies and laws introduced during the pandemic remain in place today. This translates to a narrowing space for activism.”

Civil society has felt the effects. In 2021, China introduced a new policy to combat illegal civic organizations. This policy banned collaboration with such groups, their mention in the media, providing them venues, and conducting banking transactions with them. It effectively brought two decades of civil society development to a halt, limiting the activities of LGBTQ organizations in the process.

The emphasis on protecting against foreign influence and upholding so-called traditional values now go hand in hand. While the West embraces sexual freedom of choice, China and Russia, by insulating their citizens, are veering towards conservatism. Under such circumstances, those LGBTQ people who opt for a more “Western” aesthetic — feminine men, butch lestians, or drag queens — become easy targets.

Cracking down on “sissies” and BL dramas

Violating gender norms clashes with China's emphasis on family values, especially when it comes to the behavior of men. In 2016, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television banned the portrayal of homosexuals on TV and streaming platforms. This parallels Russia's 2013 law banning “LGBT propaganda.” In China, this ban is part of a regulatory package against depictions of the “dark side of society.” Besides homosexuality, the screen cannot show extramarital affairs, incest, or relationships with minors, all of which are officially labeled as “abnormal sexual behavior.”

Shortly before these new rules went into effect, Chinese streaming platforms removed “Addicted,” a popular series based on a BL (boys' love) novel that had attracted 100 million Chinese viewers over the course of a month. The success of “Addicted” likely influenced the State Administration's decision, and the series was removed even before the entire season had been released.

Although homosexual relationships disappeared from television screens, viewers continued to see male pop singers who, emulating South Korean idols, wore makeup and meticulously maintained their appearance. In 2018, this topic sparked a debate in official Chinese media. Xinhua News Agency published an article titled “The Era of Sissies is Over,” condemning “effeminate-looking singers.” The author argued that moderation is key, and the popularity of “sissies,” who are “neither men nor women,” leads to decline and wealth worship. Most importantly, it was argued, such entertainers negatively influence the youth, the future of the country, which can never become prosperous if it adopts vulgar tastes.

Xinhua News Agency published an article titled “The Era of Sissies is Over,” condemning “effeminate-looking singers”

People's Daily criticized Xinhua for the offensive term “sissies” and pointed out that strong soldiers can also become online heroes. However, even the People’s Daily author agreed that pop stars should abandon unhealthy aesthetics and mannerisms.

A few months later, in January 2019, several TV series and shows blurred out men's earrings. However, it is worth noting that such censorship does not only affect portrayals of LGBTQ people or “effeminite” men. In China, there is a general effort to maintain “moral purity” in culture, and all erotic content is therefore banned. The plunging neckline of a heroine in the series “The Empress of China,” or sex scenes in “Game of Thrones,” could also be blurred out. Censorship of LGBTQ issues is often unpredictable: for instance, Chinese releases cut references to Freddie Mercury's sexual orientation in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Ross's ex-wife in “Friends,” but left such references intact in “Green Book.”

In Chinese releases, references to Freddie Mercury's sexual orientation were cut, but in “Green Book,” they were left untouched

In 2020, Xi Zefu, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, continued Xinhua's rhetoric. He pointed out the feminization of young men, along with their alleged weakness and timidity. He blamed this trend on a combination of the one-child policy, predominantly female environments, and incorrect cultural heroes. According to Xi Zefu, this tendency “threatens the survival and development of the Chinese nation.” Unlike Russian lawmakers who prefer imposing bans, Xi Zefu chose a different strategy. He proposed enhancing physical education in schools, researching social issues, instilling proper health concepts in children, and encouraging intellectual development.

Not coincidentally, in 2021 new regulations emerged. This time, they banned broadcasters from showing “sissies” and “abnormal aesthetics.” The broadcasting administration used the term “niangpao,” which means “effeminate men” or “sissies” and is considered derogatory. Previously, authorities had not used such language. Now, TV and radio companies are instructed not to invite guests who do not support the official position of China or who violate norms, including moral standards. The administration criticized men who wear makeup or promote the cult of wealth, instead urging the promotion of more masculine images.

In 2021, the authorities used the derogatory term “niangpao” — “effeminate men” or “sissies” — for the first time

Simultaneously, China's Ministry of Education issued guidelines for schools to prevent boys from becoming effeminate. Schools are primarily advised to find good physical education teachers and improve the quality of physical education. Children should master at least two sports skills and be better educated about health, and school leaders should monitor students' mental states and study the impact of influencers, family, and environment.

While Xi Zefu and the Ministry of Education voiced widespread concerns, not all Chinese citizens agreed, sparking heated debates online. Professor Liu Minhui from Beijing Women's University, writing in the English-language newspaper China Daily, represented those advocating for diversity. She viewed the debates as a sign of societal progress and concluded that:

“The upbringing of children should be free from gender biases, nurturing them to become adults with independent personalities, a sense of duty, and all other positive human qualities. Can we really guarantee that muscular men are always responsible and honest?”

BL dramas, popular series aimed at girls and based on gay romance novels, were among the main casualties of censorship in 2021. They drew official scrutiny, with Guangming Daily, a leading newspaper, accusing BL authors and actors of promoting improper values and vulgarity solely for profit and fame. Another article cautioned about a different peril: romanticized narratives potentially leading young women to believe that “true love isn't meant for marriage or carrying on the family lineage.”

Shortly thereafter, the radio and television administration once again responded by urging broadcasters to boycott BL adaptations. By January 2022, they had escalated to an all out ban on BL dramas (along with talent shows featuring pop idol imitators). The primary concern cited was the fawning fandom willing to spend money on anything related to their beloved characters and actors. The actors themselves — youthful, elegant, and not conventionally masculine — were seen as exacerbating the issue. Officials suggested shifting towards more realistic storytelling with appropriate themes and avoiding exclusively casting celebrities in leading roles.

While production of BL dramas didn't cease entirely, they are now primarily shown outside of China. For instance, the 2023 remake of “Addicted,” titled “Stay with Me,” aired in Taiwan (where same-sex marriages are legalized), and the series “Only You,” featuring Chinese actors, was made for Taiwanese television. In China, the depiction of male relationships in these series is typically confined to portrayals of close friendship.

There are several reasons behind these restrictions. Fan and queer cultures are seen as linked to capitalism and consumerism, whereas economic equality is deemed by the ruling Communist Party to be crucial for the prosperity of the country as a whole. Additionally, there is a general desire for differences among citizens to diminish as much as possible, with everyone adhering to established norms. Lastly, in its pursuit of international influence, China strives to promote an image of masculinity that contrasts with the pop culture portrayal of elegant boys.

Regarding censorship of the BL genre in literature (known as danmei), regulation of its online content began as early as 2014, when Chinese authorities began purging pornography from the internet. During this period, a prominent literary site, Jinjiang Literature, where many danmei authors published their works, introduced the euphemism “chunai,” or “pure love,” for BL stories, as the portrayal of sexual relationships between men were banned on the site. Currently, danmei stories adhere to the principle of avoiding explicit descriptions, prompting authors to employ euphemisms. Nevertheless, some authors choose to take risks by sharing explicit scenes in group chats with readers — a practice also observed among Russian authors.

Online queer literature faced censorship as early as 2014 when Chinese authorities began purging pornography from the internet

The necessity for such precautionary measures became evident in November 2018 when BL writer Tianyi was sentenced to 10.5 years in prison. She independently published a homoerotic novel with a print run of 7,000 copies. The court found her guilty of disseminating pornographic material, and the verdict sparked criticism, as Tianyi received a more severe punishment than many rapists. The court nevertheless upheld its decision.

Many authors deleted their texts from Chinese platforms or migrated to the international fanfiction platform Archive of Our Own. However, in 2020 this archive was blocked in China for “polluting the online environment” after some authors accused others of feminizing actors in the popular BL series “Unstoppable: Lord Chenxin.” The BL genre remains highly popular both in China and abroad, often prompting officially published writers to release two versions: one censored for the Chinese market with homosexual storylines removed, and another with kisses or even intimate scenes for international audiences.

Despite stringent censorship in mainstream media, LGBT film festivals continue to be organized in China. In the autumn of 2023, the Beijing Queer Film Festival became the country's largest event of its kind. It featured a diverse array of LGBTQ films from both local talents and international directors. Since its inception in 2001, the festival has encountered annual challenges, often requiring venue adjustments or the cancellation of specific screenings. Support from foreign embassies and careful management of social media play crucial roles in shielding the event from unwanted scrutiny.

Activism in disfavor

In the late 2000s and 2010s, China saw a rise in LGBT organizations. Among the largest were ShanghaiPRIDE and the Beijing LGBT Center, based in major cities but offering support to communities nationwide.

In August 2020, ShanghaiPRIDE, the oldest organizer of annual LGBTQ events in China, suspended its activities. After 12 years of work — which included the challenge of hosting Pride events during COVID-19 lockdowns — the organization's members decided to take a break, and its founder, Raymond Fan, left China. However, literal parades were never held: ShanghaiPRIDE focused on sports events, exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, parties, and even job fairs. These activities ran throughout the year, not just during Pride Month (June), and they attracted thousands of participants.

Like other major LGBTQ organizations, ShanghaiPRIDE avoided slogans that could be deemed political. Its main goal was to educate society about the fact that sexual minorities exist everywhere, and to help LGBTQ people themselves. However, even this approach did not shield activists from periodic persecution, leading them to hastily close exhibitions, cancel film screenings, or relocate events at the authorities' demand. There were also difficulties in finding speakers: in a country where coming out is already an achievement for many, not everyone is willing to speak about it publicly.

ShanghaiPRIDE was just the first LGBT organization to close. The next was LGBT Rights Advocacy China, which operated from 2013. The organization's staff lawyers filed strategic lawsuits in hopes of changing legislation. For example, in 2014, co-founder Yanhui Peng went to a clinic offering conversion electroshock therapy. LGBT Rights Advocacy China sued the clinic, and the court deemed conversion therapy illegal. Additionally, the organization successfully defended clients against workplace discrimination.

Even if these lawsuits failed to change laws, they fostered discussions in society and in state media. In the end, however, LGBT Rights Advocacy China had to close when one of its founders was detained and promised release only if the group ceased its activities. In 2023, the Beijing LGBT Center closed its doors. No government organization cited specific reasons as to why.

Smaller groups working to help LGBTQ people find it harder to survive because official registration is required for budget funding, and receiving money from foreign NGOs is now impossible. Nevertheless, it is these smaller groups that have proven more resilient. The authorities are even willing to allocate funds to some LGBTQ organizations that focus on addressing HIV/AIDS and other issues connected with men's or women's health. Such NGOs strive to avoid political statements and focus solely on their field of work.

Other groups have managed to remain active by keeping a low profile. TrueSelf, which helps queers find common ground with their families, was known until 2021 as PFLAG China — Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG is an international organization founded in Washington, and the Chinese group decided to change its name when it became clear that the authorities saw LGBT activism as Western influence. The organization removed potentially dangerous words like “lesbians” and “gays” and shifted its focus to education and assistance for teenagers.

“LGBT activists in China are well aware of the government's views and strive to de-Westernize themselves,” says gender researcher Lin Sun. “Most activists I interact with are actually willing to collaborate with the government and do not intend to challenge its authority, but the space for activism is still shrinking.”

Universities have not escaped attention either. The most notable case occurred in May 2022 at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Two students laid out ten rainbow flags on a table in the campus supermarket with a note inviting others to take them. This was their way of marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia. A month later, the students were summoned for a discussion with university leadership. They were given a warning — one that was accompanied by the loss of their scholarships for six months. The university determined that the students had violated rules by distributing promotional materials without permission, thereby exerting harmful influence on others.

In China, there has been a longstanding effort to suppress rainbow flags, which are even banned from use on social media. Seen as a Western import, they are considered foreign to the country, much like activism itself is. Li Tian (pseudonym), a gay university professor in Guangzhou who believes that “authorities primarily target activists,” says:

“The rainbow flag and the very word 'rainbow' (kaihong) have become taboo within universities. On my faculty, students initiated a media project titled 'Little Rainbow' to share videos featuring children's choirs. However, when they tried to promote this project on the faculty's official account, the students had to rename it.”

The severe response witnessed at Tsinghua University surprised the public. A decade earlier, universities had a different attitude. At Sun Yat-sen University in 2012, there were no repercussions for displaying a large rainbow flag, even if only briefly, on the International Day Against Homophobia. Back then, the organizers were even portrayed sympathetically in the Global Times newspaper.

The online realm

China is widely known for its complex and expensive infrastructure for censoring online content. In April 2018, Sina and Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter and Facebook, simultaneously announced the deletion of posts related to homosexuality. They also started removing materials containing pornography and violent imagery as part of an attempt to create a “clean and healthy online space.” Users protested in digital form. Same-sex couples posted photos, parents shared about their relationships with their LGBTQ children, and many used rainbow emojis accompanied by hashtags like “I am gay,” “I am not a pervert,” and “I am not illegal.” After three days, Weibo's management reversed the decision. Interestingly, People's Daily emphasized the importance of diversity, condemned discrimination, and acknowledged the right of homosexuals to defend their rights, albeit while also stressing the importance of “social responsibility.” In July 2021, WeChat began purging content, and university LGBTQ groups with tens of thousands of subscribers were blocked and removed without warning.

Despite the crackdown, openness largely reigns on Xiaohongshu, China's answer to Instagram. This social network is favored by trans people who share their experiences, and the platform does not censor their posts.

Dating apps for LGBTQ people are also extremely popular in China. There are separate services for lesbians and gays, led by Blued — the world's largest gay dating app. Initially created as a replacement for Jack'd, an American service that lost popularity due to the government’s firewall, Blued is now used not only in China but also in Vietnam, India, and South Korea. The app's audience exceeds 40 million people, surpassing the number of users on Grindr, the international gay dating app.

The app’s popularity is enhanced by the well-thought-out strategy of owner BlueCity, which also runs Lesdo, the largest service for lesbians in China. Officially, Blued focuses on men's health and HIV prevention, and the service has even launched an online pharmacy and consultations. This, along with its avoidance of activist language, has allowed BlueCity to maintain a working relationship with the government despite being the country’s primary gay dating app.

BlueCity users can share photos and videos, but caution is advised. In 2017, another gay app, Zank, was blocked due to pornographic content. BlueCity's owners monitor the news of the day closely and strive to adapt quickly. As a result, they had to abandon some services, such as BluedBaby, which helped gays and lesbians find surrogate mothers in the United States and Canada. This happened shortly after a scandal erupted in China involving an actress who found a surrogate mother in America.

Cool indifference

A 2013 study by Jiao Tong University (Shanghai) revealed that, out of 3,500 respondents, 58% considered homosexuality unacceptable. A similar finding from Pew Research showed that 57% of Chinese are unwilling to accept homosexuality. Conversely, in 2016, the UN Development Program surveyed 30,000 Chinese citizens and found that the majority do not view homosexuality or transgenderism as deviations (70%) and are against discrimination (60%).

According to UN researchers, Chinese society is undergoing a transitional state in which people are trying to define their attitudes, with younger generations being more tolerant towards LGBTQ people, especially in megacities.

However, much has changed since 2016, including in Chinese legislation. The latest major survey by Ipsos in 2021 recorded 43% support the legalization of same-sex marriage, while another 20% believe that same-sex couples should be legally recognized in some other way. And yet, no more than 36% approve of open LGBTQ behaviors, even if gender researcher Lin Sun notes that the younger generation of Chinese is very tolerant — even supportive — of the LGBTQ community.

Currently, Chinese people are more likely to express tolerant indifference towards LGBTQ people, even if more hostile exceptions of course exist. Crimes based on homo- or transphobia are rare in China. Fake dating setups, in which homosexuals or trans people are attacked upon meeting, are also uncommon. This is partly thanks to the government's lack of aggressive rhetoric against the LGBTQ community — this despite the authorities’ fight against the threat of “effeminate” men and openly outspoken activists. Unlike in Russia, in China officials and media do not portray LGBTQ people as enemies. Professor Li Ityan agrees that the level of aggressive homophobia in the country is low:

“In China, gay men using dating apps do not fear encountering police or homophobes. Personally, I have never heard of such cases. I myself used these apps when I was in university.”

Still LGBTQ individuals in China often fear dismissal from their jobs, and they therefore work to conceal their sexual orientation or identity. Li Ityan is no exception:

“All my close friends know that I'm gay. I wouldn't say being in a relationship is difficult, but sometimes, when I'm with my partner, I worry that students or colleagues might see us. I don't want gossip spreading at work because Chinese universities, according to the government's agenda, are very homophobic. Although I believe some colleagues and many students are accepting of homosexuality, coming out at work would surely bring me problems. I could even be fired because of it.”

Gender non-conforming and transgender people, especially those who are well-known, more often become targets of bullying. Ballerina and TV presenter Jin Xin rarely emphasizes that she is a trans woman — one of the most successful in China. She does not consider herself an LGBTQ icon and has focused on her creative career instead. Only recently, in January 2024, Jin Xin appeared on stage with a rainbow flag bearing the inscription “Love is love, love and gender are unrelated.” Photos were quickly deleted from Weibo, but that wasn't the end of it: critics accused Jin Xin of corrupting children and destroying traditional marriage. As a result, the star stopped discussing LGBTQ topics altogether.

Such a strategy appeals to the Chinese authorities, who adhere to the principle of “do not support, do not encourage, do not condemn.” Despite occasional sympathetic portrayals in the media towards LGBTQ people, the usual message remains clear: the community will not be bothered so long as it keeps a low profile.

The LGBTQ community will not be bothered if it keeps a low profile

This is affirmed by statements from Chinese officials. In 2018, at a UN Human Rights Council meeting, Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng assured all present that China protects LGBTQ rights, respects private life, and permits gender reassignment surgeries, but due to historical, cultural, and value-related factors, it continues to recognize marriage only between a man and a woman.

And less tolerant attitudes are easy enough to find. The former editor of the state newspaper Global Times, Hu Sijingwho, who is often compared to the outrageous Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, wrote that Chinese “conservatism is inevitable and justified.” Therefore, according to Hu, if it wished to to avoid tension, the LGBTQ community should not try to become a “popular ideology.” He also noted that sexual minorities primarily suffer discrimination from their families. Sadly, on this final point, he is largely correct.

Fear of family

Exhibiting tolerance in the abstract is often easier than accepting that a close relative has come out as a member of the LGBTQ community, and families remain the least tolerant environment for sexual minorities in China, with 57% of survey respondents saying they are unwilling to accept a queer family member. Unsurprisingly, only 15% of LGBTQ people have decided to disclose their orientation or identity to their families. When they do, many encounter rejection. The Insider's interviewee, Li Ityan, was only able to come out to his mother.

“I've been in a relationship for two years now. In my family, I've only come out to my mom, while my dad and other relatives know nothing about my orientation. My mom supports my relationship, but my partner's parents refuse to accept the fact that their son has a boyfriend. He met my mother, but I've never met his parents, to whom he came out many years ago.”

Even if the family knows everything, LGBTQ people are often expected to marry opposite sex partners for appearance's sake — even if not to continue the family line. Often enough, a gay man will marry a lesbian, and to facilitate such matches, a special website has been launched in China.

In a patriarchal society, parental pressure can be very strong because parents wield significant authority, even over adult children. According to The Insider's interviewee Zhao Qin:

“The parents of an adult lesbian who studied in Australia learned about her orientation and forced her to return to China. They locked her up at home and prevented her from communicating with other people, and the police did nothing because 'they are her parents'.”

Sometimes, relatives compel LGBTQ family members to undergo psychotherapy or conversion therapy, despite its prohibition. Trans people are especially frequently subjected to such “treatments.” Out of 1,640 gender non-conforming and trans people surveyed by the Beijing LGBT Center in 2017, only six had not experienced domestic violence. Unlike homosexuality, gender dysphoria remains classified as a mental disorder in China, further exacerbating its stigma.

Strict requirements govern transgender transition and document changes. A person must be over 18 years old, obtain parental permission, not be married, and have no criminal record. Even if all criteria are met, a minimum of one year of psychotherapy is required before approval for surgery and hormone treatment can be received. However, after transition, individuals can live peacefully and start a family, provided their relatives do not interfere.

Those unable to undergo surgical transition often run away from home, aided by other LGBTQ people. Such assistance can be dangerous: in June 2023, a transgender woman sheltered a runaway teenager from their parents, but was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “group licentiousness” — engaging in sexual activity with three or more people.

A transgender woman still residing in China, a friend of Zhao Qin, was also arrested on false accusations of “group licentiousness,” as any “sexual deviation” can lead to arrest if the police so desire, even if it involves consensual sex. Her transphobic parents framed her because they believe that prison would somehow cure her of being transgender.

Zhao Qin, a lesbian, revealed her orientation to a few close friends. Opening up to her parents proved more challenging:

“In 2021, I accidentally came out to my parents during an argument. I couldn't keep it hidden any longer, so I decided to be honest with them. Despite their ongoing homophobia, they had to come to terms with the fact that I love women and won't marry a man.”

In a legal twist, same-sex couples have found a practical workaround: they can register as each other's legal guardians. Originally intended for elder care, this guardianship law has been creatively utilized by lawyers to benefit gays and lesbians. Now, if one partner becomes incapacitated, the other can make critical decisions on their behalf.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, couples in China have been able to marry in the American state of Utah without leaving their homes, using Zoom. This option has been utilized by numerous Chinese same-sex couples. While these ceremonies are mostly symbolic, they do offer official recognition from another jurisdiction. Currently, such avenues and urban subcultures are the primary recourse for couples who prefer not to relocate to more liberal Hong Kong.

Despite the political climate, experts assure that LGBTQ people are living more peacefully than they were twenty or thirty years ago. The Chinese community has not only learned to survive, but also to flourish by adeptly navigating censorship. In cities like Shanghai or Chengdu, known for their progressive atmosphere, homosexual couples confidently frequent tea houses, proudly displaying their relationships. There is optimism that societal attitudes elsewhere will evolve, bolstered by local events encouraging society as a whole to better understand sexual minorities and their place in China.

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