“What’s like growing up in China being gay?”
This is often the first serious question I get when someone I’ve just met discovers I’m gay and grew up in mainland China. I understand their curiosity—the concept can seem almost oxymoronic. In totalitarian China, where everything is reined under the tight leash of the Communist Party, being part of the LGBTQ community shouldn’t be easy. After all, China’s ideological kin, Russia, has become emblematic of oppression towards the LGBTQ community. China, in theory, is not that different.
Some people expect me to recount a grueling depiction of surviving in the crevices of a homosexual dystopia. The truth is that I rarely felt in danger. There were difficult moments when I was growing up, of course: those inexplicable palpations when I saw beautiful boys, the fluttered and overhyped talk of girls I’d expound upon to fit in with my peers, the personal embarrassment of being aroused by men in porn scrapped from every corner of the world. But these are moments that many gay men experience, no matter where they were born.
All in all, growing up gay in China was not devastatingly poignant for me. China rarely made a spectacle by openly prosecuting LGBTQ persons, so negative exposure to LGBTQ existence was seldom heard of. Homosexuality was still considered immoral and widely discouraged, but being gay was more like an ominous urban legend than a palpable and punishable sin.
This made it confusing as hell, at first. The bundles of sentiments I experienced made no sense to me, as I didn’t even understand that being gay was a possibility. The absence of substantial LGBT culture—both positive and negative—dictated that there wasn’t anything for me to even agonize over not having; no over-romanticized love-at-first-sight films, no fabulous contested gay icons, no persecuted activists. No struggles, but also no joys. Had I spent my entire life asleep, that would have been the strongest form of silencing.
The main reason I was able to wake up to myself was the internet. A lot of LGBTQ people of my generation were fortunate to be able to recognize and shape our real identities via blogs and social media. Modern-day China is actually not as oppressive as many may think when it comes to LGBTQ issues online. Though initially harsh about censoring LGBTQ content, in the past 20 years China’s internet, has evolved from a forbidden domain into a virtual sanctuary for LBGTQ people. We may not feel confident in asserting our sexualities in public, but digitally, our communities thrive.
The boom of the internet poked countless holes in China’s ideological bastion, and information start to gush in nonstop, despite the draconian censorship policies. The boundless internet mesmerized me. I started to learn about the existence of gay people online, both accidentally and intentionally, and being gay no longer seemed so implausible.
The big moment came in 2004, when I was 14 years old. A friend whom I loved—albeit subconsciously—rested his head on my legs. I felt something different when I ran my hand gently through his hair. I realized that I loved boys. And I think he did too. Neither of us made a move in the years to come—we were always too timid. But I still have his number saved in my phone.
After that life-changing realization, I would squeeze in every chance I had to educate and entertain myself with related contents. I read Allen Ginsburg and admired Freddy Mercury. I found myself infatuated with shows like Queer as Folk, which I watched when my parents weren’t home. The internet molded me where real world failed to.
As a teenager, I also spent a lot of time watching gay porn. I had broken the passwords set on my parents’ computer and had literally scaled my boarding school’s wall to spend entire nights in internet cafés watching it using money I stole money from my parents. The standard internet cafés pack in 100 computers with customers located awkwardly close to each other, so I’d always pick the last seat at the very corner where no one sits. I would stick my head close to the screen and put my arms around it to shield people from seeing what I was watching. Every time someone walked by, I’d almost have a heart attack, but that didn’t stop me. It was exciting and liberating. In hindsight, I’ve come to the realization that those were some of the purest and most euphoric moments in my life—it was my own minuscule form of rebellion against a repressive society.
In my high school years, I met a couple of kids who were courageous enough to come out. I never had the guts to do it. I was terrified that all my friends would desert me if they’d known, and that my parents would hear about it. I even joined conversations where people taunted the gay students so I’d appear less gay to my peers. Until I graduated high school, all of my interactions with other gay people were strictly online.
By the time I reached college, I was more affirmed and convinced of my identity. I decided to take a risk and came out to some of my closest friends. To my surprise, every single one of them took it exceptionally well, and most of them said they sort of figured that I was gay, anyway.
I visited the US for the first time when I was in college. I went to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I froze at the glamorous fabulousness of West Hollywood and the Castro. The notion that gay people in America had carved out entire neighborhoods to themselves was foreign and eye-opening to me. I was astonished to see guys holding hands and kissing in public. I also hoped for some real-life romantic encounters that I had never even dreamed of experiencing in China. I went to a gay bar for the first time in my life. A guy picked me up, and I lost my virginity that night.
“I’ve never even kissed a boy before,” I said.
“But you looked like you know what you were doing,” he said, marveling at my unwarranted sophistication.
“I’ve watched a lot of porn,” I said.
I moved to the US three years ago for school, and have since become more confident and outspoken about being gay. Though the LGBTQ community faces its own struggles in America, I’ve spent my time here in liberal environments where being gay is much more accepted and celebrated than in China. Being a part of actual gay communities has empowered me. Gay celebrities and politicians, pride festivals, and the legalization of gay marriage have all fueled my desire to speak up and defend my community. I have never been the kind of rebel who single-handedly tries to tear down the wall of oppression, but I can be one of many who are trying to push down the wall together.
For the time being, China still doesn’t have the LGBTQ community that has been so important to me. Legally, China still doesn’t recognize gay marriage and hasn’t budged in giving LGBTQ people equal rights. But the online community has continued to grow extensively. There are gay bars in my hometown of Shanghai, and there have been several small-scale pride festivals. Still, these achievements are fragile; there is much more work to be done to strengthen the gay community’s rights.
Many young LGBTQ people in China are like me, experiencing a fracturing of identity and displaying different personas to those who are willing to accept gays and those who aren’t. I have still not come out to my parents. The internet wave didn’t reach their generation, and they are still part of China’s current political and cultural architecture. Many gay people in China share my experience: Their ability to live openly and freely is still being decided by other people’s prejudices. We still have a long way to go.