Queer and minority research in China

Surely being gay in a country like China cannot be easy? Yes and no, says Norwegian researcher Elisabeth Engebretsen. Most people are surprised by the number of art and culture happenings arranged under the so-called queer umbrella.

At the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Elisabeth Engebretsen studies sexuality, gender and social change in the suburbs of Beijing.

At the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Elisabeth Engebretsen studies sexuality, gender and social change in the suburbs of Beijing. The title of her research project is The cultural politics of 'peripheral' sexuality and space in metropolitan Beijing.

– On the one hand, it’s obvious that a country like China is no democracy. Many minorities are met with negative attitudes, but then there are groups that the authorities do not perceive as particularly problematic in the political sense.

Politically problematic groups are, for example, ethnic minorities like the Muslims in western China and the Tibetans with their claims on autonomy. These groups act on a political level, which has put them under strict surveillance by the authorities. Homosexuals, however, don’t constitute a politically complex group.

– On the other hand, it’s difficult – or even impossible – to live openly as a homosexual in China. Similarly, openly marketing a gay event is risky, Engebretsen says.

Authorities often move in and subject festivals to censorship.

– They don’t admit that the reason is the queer theme of the festival, but refer to other things, such as faulty technical arrangements.

In China, there are no gay pride parades, or other gay political phenomena of the West. The political message about the rights of homosexuals is almost nonexistent.

– Gay women who have been married and had children often lose their children in a divorce. The court will take the side of the father. The prevailing attitude is that homosexuality is a mental illness, says Engebretsen.

Until 2001 homosexuality was listed as a mental illness by the Chinese psychiatric association. In legal contexts, such as in divorce cases, the diagnosis is still applicable.

Being unmarried is not totally acceptable in China, either.

– Finding a job and getting a promotion are more difficult, you simply get passed over, says Engebretsen. – The only situation where being unmarried is okay is if you live at home and take care of your parents.

Sham marriages between lesbian women and gay men occur to some extent.

– You can’t say it’s common, but it is a popular strategy that many people give a try. There are organised meetings where gay women and men can get in touch with each other.

Many see it as an ideal solution but, in the end, the majority find it too stressful to lead that kind of a double life.

– Once you’re married, there’s a new type of pressure – to have a child. Most of those who marry can’t go through with it; keeping up appearances is just too much for them.

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Text and photo: Nadine Aschan
Translation: AAC Global
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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