Gay men from China find a liberating openness in America’s LGBT community

Society & Culture

Two gay men who left China for the United States discovered a warm and welcoming community that provided experiences much different than those they had back home.

Timmy Shen

The first thing Evan Liu did when he arrived at New York City’s Pride Parade in June was write his phone number on the back of his T-shirt.

The 22-year-old graduate student at Pennsylvania State University said publicizing his contact information was “just fun,” but it ended up giving him an unexpected and welcome response — one of many he has encountered in an American gay community that demonstrates a camaraderie and openness unlike anything he experienced in his home country of China.

“The trust within the community here makes me feel at home,” said Liu, who moved to the United States last fall. “The presence of gay communities in China mostly exists online.”

To celebrate his newfound connections, Liu embarked on a five-hour bus ride from University Park, Pennsylvania, to New York for the Pride Parade on June 26. Holding a huge rainbow flag with fellow marchers from China Rainbow Network, an organization founded in 1996 for Chinese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in North America, Liu waved to the crowd on Fifth Avenue with a broad grin.

In China, the majority of LGBT people face discrimination, including from members of their own family, and only 5 percent of them are completely open about their sexual and gender identity, according to a recent survey conducted by the United Nations Development Programme.

Liu was one of the few Chinese marchers who had come out to his parents back home. The decision to do so became urgent three years ago, when he was a sophomore at Peking University. The academic pressure and trying to “act straight” caused him to enter a deep depression.

“I could no longer hold it together if I couldn’t get any moral support from my parents,” he said.

When they came to Beijing from Qingdao, Liu’s hometown, to visit him, he decided to tell them he was gay. He made the revelation over dinner in his grandmother’s apartment.

“It was very awkward,” he said. “I felt that I had been lying to them the whole time.”

The message didn’t register at first. Liu’s parents, both doctors, thought he was joking, saying that he didn’t look gay. Liu went on to tell them how depressed he was, and they started to realize what their son was trying to communicate. The mood grew somber, but Liu continued, explaining his life to two people whom he loved deeply but who knew nothing about homosexuality. His father even told him that he had never met a gay person.

Much to Liu’s joy, his parents accepted who he was.

Members of China Rainbow Network, an organization founded in 1996 for Chinese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in North America, marched in New York City's Pride Parade in late June. Many of them haven’t revealed their sexual orientation to friends and family in their home country. Timmy Shen
Members of China Rainbow Network, an organization founded in 1996 for Chinese lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in North America, marched in New York City’s Pride Parade in late June. Many of them haven’t revealed their sexual orientation to people in their home country. Timmy Shen

His parents’ lack of knowledge is an example of one of several obstacles to coming out in China. The nation’s strong conservative streak also adds to the difficulty. Traditional concepts of Chinese virtue suggest the importance of continuing the family line; to have no offspring is one of the worst things a child can do to his or her parents, according to Mencius, a Chinese philosopher in the fourth century BCE, and the parental options open to gay couples are not perceived as acceptable.

Traditional marriage is also highly valued in Chinese society. An old saying describes the wedding night as one of four joys in life, and the pressure to enter such relationships can prove troubling for LGBT people in China.

Kevin, a 31-year-old gay man who declined to reveal his last name, came to the United States from China three years ago and now works at a pharmacy in Queens, New York. He came out to his family when he was 17 years old. Since then, his parents have tactfully hinted that he should get married to a girl while avoiding talking about the “gay problem.”

“If I marry a girl, I’m simply ruining two families at once,” Kevin said. “Why would I want to do that?”

One Chinese professor said that more than 16 million women in mainland China are married or have been married to gay or bisexual men. The report prompted the LGBT community to launch a social media campaign opposing the practice.

In other cases, gay men in China try to navigate social pressures by entering into “marriages of convenience” with lesbians, a phenomenon that’s on the rise. Beijing LGBT Center, a community organization, has held informational events for people considering such unions.

“Parents forcing you to get married is only the first step,” Kevin said. “The ultimate goal is to produce babies.”

He believes that traditional Chinese family values have done harm to too many people, especially to the children who are born in sham marriages.

“They are unlikely the results of love,” he said. “How could you love [the baby] wholeheartedly? That’d be a very irresponsible move. You can say that this is a dreg of Chinese culture. Why would you want to continue to preserve such values?”

New York provides a welcome alternative for him. There is less pressure to get married. He openly walks hand-in-hand with his partner and feels comfortable giving him a kiss in public. These simple acts wouldn’t be possible for him in China because, he said, it would be too risky if seen by someone he knows.

Members of China Rainbow Network waved Chinese and Taiwanese flags at New York’s Pride Parade Timmy Shen
Marchers in the Pride Parade in New York waved Chinese and Taiwanese flags. Timmy Shen

Liu has experienced a similarly heartening contrast. In China, he felt as if he “was fighting against the world alone.” In the U.S., he has made many friends who share his orientation, joined a gay club at school — a type of organization that is forbidden on his old campus in China — and participated in the Pride Parade.

“It’s different here,” he said.

Liu’s ties to the gay community also extend to the digital realm. He and other Chinese LGBT people who attended the parade formed a group on WeChat, the predominant messaging app among Chinese communities. It was there that he shared some good news.

“Oh, my God! A guy contacted me through the number I put on the back of my T-shirt,” he wrote. “He’s in the Navy. This might be the right guy for me.”