[Advance warning - some people may find this blog post offensive - sorry about that - but I feel it all needs to be said.]
I’m back in the UK at the moment, and the media has been covering the heated debate over the concept of gay marriage which culminated last night with a vote in the House of Commons. Though the Prime Minister took a beating from MPs in his own party who voted against gay marriage, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was passed with an overwhelming majority.
In China, attitudes to homosexuals (tongzhi 同志 ) are still very much those of last century, which is ironic as for thousands of years previously homosexuality (one of the classic names for which was “the passion of the cut sleeve” (duànxiù zhī pǐ断袖之癖 ) was regarded as a normal facet of human life. It was frequently celebrated in art and literature.
It was only when Christian missionaries from the west arrived in China in the late 19th century and started converting the Chinese that attitudes began to change. Both Christianity and Islam have strong religious views on what they consider the sinful, unnatural, and offensive practice of same-sex relationships and this was part of the message that the missionaries promulgated. Western ideologies took hold and resulted in the adoption of western-style laws, to the extent that during the first Republic of China and then post WWII – the Mao years – many Chinese knew nothing of the past, and declared that homosexuality was a ‘non-Chinese’ practice.
In 1997 homosexuality was de-criminalised in China, and then in 2001 homosexuality was taken off the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses. This is not to say that all is plain sailing for gays in China these days. Confucian values are still very much the cultural glue of the nation, and these values put the continuation of the family at the heart of society. It considered your duty to your parents and your wider family to continue the blood-line. When young Chinese men and women hit their mid-twenties, they come under increasing and sustained pressure to marry and have a child – and this has become even more expected since the advent of the one-child policy.
Because of this, China has a particular group of people unknown in other countries, the Homowives (tongqi 同妻 ), these are heterosexual women who are married to gay men. They invariably did not know of their husband’s sexuality when they married, and only find out later when they find themselves leading emotionally and sexually barren lives. They are too embarrassed to tell their friends and families, so it is often a lonely existence. There are estimated to be between 10-16 million homowives in China – a huge number of unhappy women.
Of course in other countries there have always been gay men who have married for one reason or another, but many more have chosen to live alone. It is entirely because of the cultural expectations of marriage and procreation that this has happened in China; apparently 92% of gay men marry in order to satisfy these cultural expectations, but having married they continue to live their gay lives leaving their wives in limbo.
In the big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Tianjin there are active gay communities – indeed Shanghai has had its fourth Gay Pride March – but I would imagine that in the countryside it is a much bleaker, more repressed picture.
As a heterosexual grandmother who has been happily married for 37 years, some may think it strange that I feel so strongly that ALL people, whatever their sexuality should be able to live their lives in freedom with equal status for all.