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Not far from where Mao Zedong is preserved under glass for the thousands of flower-bearing Communists who parade past his body every day, a different kind of comrade gathers on the edge of Tiananmen Square. This variety hasn't yet caused the chairman to turn over in his public grave, but may be contributing to the cracks in his waxy face.
Officially, there are no gay people in China. But the scores of tongzhi -- or "comrades" -- who meet and mingle with each other in Beijing's Dongdan Park prove officialdom wrong. That China's gays choose to identify one another by an old Communist title may be a nod to the "Friend of Dorothy" code once used in the West; more likely it's a clever way to remain uniquely Chinese, while living under a ruling party that doesn't recognize one's existence. In any case, the tongzhi I met during my three-week trek through China were very real.
The breakaway province of Taiwan and the new special administrative region of Hong Kong -- where gay bars, bathhouses, and even same-sex commitment ceremonies are unsurprising features of public life -- have long histories of ignoring their motherland's Communist Party leaders when it comes to gay issues. And increasingly, the people of the People's Republic are following suit. There are three established, openly gay bars in Beijing, and 20 bathhouses that serve a large gay clientele. Shanghai has even more such bars, and last year, that city was home to what is thought to be China's first lesbian wedding. Mingshui Xiushu, a well-known writer and actress, married another woman in front of family and friends. A Chinese movie director officiated. Nothing about the ceremony was legal, but no one tried to stop the event, which was held in a French restaurant.
China has kept its ruling Communist Party firmly in place in the nearly 25 years since Mao died. But it is not Mao's party anymore. Successors have embraced a market economy and much of the pure Communist ideology has been lost, with the government issuing new slogans such as "To Get Rich Is Glorious." While Mao tried to strip China of its heritage by burning monasteries and outlawing traditional music during his Cultural Revolution, the intense focus on money by today's leaders has given China's monks and musicians -- and homosexuals -- a chance to be left alone. The government's pursuit of economic reform has, by default, led to increased personal freedoms for most of China's citizens. People understand they can do pretty much what they want as long as they do not challenge or threaten the Communist Party's control, which explains why the outspoken meditation group Falun Gong has been in so much trouble with the government, even as Buddha-worshipping monasteries dot China's countryside. In fact, the government now helps rebuild temples it thinks can attract tourist dollars. (Tibetan Buddhists, however, remain out of government favor, because they refuse to recognize any authority but the Dalai Lama).
In post-Mao China, where young people follow their own rock stars, entrepreneurs are free to run businesses (given that they pay the right officials), and bicycle-riding peasants chat on cell phones, gays have also benefited from what appears to be a national "don't ask, don't tell" policy on everything. Sometimes, the law has even been on their side. In 1997, sodomy was decriminalized, and the all-purpose charge of "hooliganism," which police often used against homosexuals or anyone the government thought was acting deviantly, was also taken off the books. Last year, the owners of a gay brothel in Sichuan province escaped prosecution because, technically, only female prostitutes were illegal; the criminal code had failed to acknowledge that men could be sex workers, too.
Gay people in China still live in a world of contradiction: Though it is easier now for tongzhi in China to meet and have sex, it is difficult to move beyond the sex and enjoy a gay life that includes work, family, friends, and same-sex relationships. Tongzhi activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan who use the Internet to help educate and connect gays on the mainland (gztz.org; nease.net/~jwind/; gaychina.com) point out the inconsistencies in China's supposed disdain for gay love. If homosexuality is a deeply held cultural taboo -- and it is, often portrayed as an evil influence from the West -- activists are quick to note that it was Western religious missionaries who started the cultural campaign against same-sex love, upon discovering how common it was in ancient China.
Still, gay men like Larry find history of little help in regard to coming out, even to family. At 25, Larry is closeted. He told me he can safely remain so until he is 30 or so, when the pressure to marry will probably be too much to avoid. He does not rule out marrying a woman then, even though he has a secret boyfriend now and has felt he was gay since he was a very young boy.
Larry lives in Beijing, but until recently had never been to one of the city's openly gay bars; he was scared, not wanting anyone he knows to see him there. Beijing has a population of more than 10 million, so its three tiny gay bars could host only a fraction of the city's probable gay population. Because the gay community in Beijing is largely closeted -- many of the gay men have wives, or live with their parents and extended family in crowded homes -- gay bathhouses outnumber bars by a factor of 6- or 7-to-1. This makes sense; the bathhouse affords some privacy and anonymity, and for those living in Beijing's numerous hutong neighborhoods -- alleyway shanty towns that often have no running water -- trips to the public bathhouse are a common and expected event. It's just that at certain hours, at certain bathhouses, gay men predominate.