Comrades of the People's Republic

While traveling in China, our writer explores that country's increasing sexual freedom

Larry does not go to the bathhouses or to parks for trysts, because he wants more than meaningless sexual encounters. He believes in romantic, committed love, something he has been able to experience -- secretly -- with his boyfriend. Larry is an artist who runs a gallery in a shopping district near the "Mao-soleum" that holds the Communist Party founder's body; his boyfriend wandered into the art store one day, and they now have been together almost a year. Mostly, though, they keep to themselves. They do not have a network of gay friends. Or at least Larry doesn't think so. None of Larry's friends has told him he or she is gay, just as Larry and his boyfriend haven't openly admitted it to their friends, either.

When Larry did finally go to Beijing's most popular gay bar, Half & Half, he was amazed to see so many gay Chinese in one place. The small bar was packed with at least 100 patrons, almost all Chinese, except for a few Western expatriates who live and work in Beijing. Actually, Larry says, most of the clientele is not originally from Beijing; being far from home makes it less likely one would be recognized in a gay bar. The men there were of varying ages and classes, shouting in Mandarin to one another over the loud, mostly Western-influenced rock and pop music. Almost everyone smoked; most did not drink. The young, pretty men perched on barstools sipping expensive beer were the for-hire "moneyboys." A toothbrush dropped from the pocket of one, and a few held little overnight bags in their laps. The government clearly allows the existence of Half & Half (a sign hanging in front of the club includes a rainbow-colored triangle), but inside the bar near the door were government-issued pamphlets that spelled out in Chinese the evils of homosexuality and encouraged readers to marry women, or go home to their wives.

Larry felt like dancing, and Half & Half is too small for a dance floor. But Beijing's straight discos generally welcome, or at least tolerate, the gay crowd. Filled with Beijing's young and hip, and a smattering of expats, the Den had lights and music that rivaled any of San Francisco's South of Market dance clubs. Of course, there was a DJ, and in a corner near him about a dozen gay Chinese men and one transsexual danced together. All night, it was their spot. The group let loose, exhibiting some wilder and often better dance moves than anyone in the rest of the nightclub. A few heads turned when two men, and then three, started grinding together in suggestive poses. But some in the straight crowd smiled and tried to show up the gay boys with moves of their own.

An openly gay bar (above) and a straight "love shop," both in Beijing; sexually freer China  has made it easier for gays to be left alone  by the government.
Joel P. Engardio
An openly gay bar (above) and a straight "love shop," both in Beijing; sexually freer China has made it easier for gays to be left alone by the government.

Generally, attitudes about sex have relaxed in China, especially among today's teenagers and young twentysomethings, who were born as the government's focus on economic reform sharpened in the early 1980s. Reggie and Kevin, two cousins who live in Yunnan province, typify the change among straight Chinese. Reggie, who is 19, has been sexually active for three years; many of his peers also entered the sexual world in their midteens. But Kevin, now 27, did not lose his virginity until his early 20s. Both are attractive, outgoing men who were popular in school. But when he was in high school, Kevin explains, sex was just not a subject that was broached; that his friends were too intimidated to initiate anything. Reggie's experience was much different, which shows what a difference a decade makes in evolving China.

On the outskirts of Beijing, far from the tourist centers, one can find a Chinese "love shop" that carries the same kind of sex toys found in San Francisco's famous Good Vibrations. In China's version, women also run the store, but here they are dressed in white lab coats and treat the selection of dildos, Viagra-like potions, and Asian-influenced French ticklers with a clinical approach that seems more palatable -- less like a sex business -- to the government.

Actually, though, across China -- in its capital, industrial cities, and even smaller towns -- the sex trade is far from hidden. Almost any beauty parlor doubles as a brothel. In some areas, a half-dozen "hair salons" or more will line a street. In the evening, young women in tight jeans and heavy makeup stand in the front doors, calling out to men passing by on the sidewalk and offering "massages." Reggie says it costs anywhere from the equivalent of $10 to $20 to be with a prostitute in his town. Although prostitution is illegal, the beauty parlor owners pay local officials to warn them of the occasional police check; on that day, all the girls just happen to be busy cutting hair.

China's freer sexual mores, however, have developed in the context of a government that is officially sexually repressive and purposefully ignorant of the changes in its citizens' sexual attitudes and practices. This combination of repression and denial may explain why young, sexually active men like Reggie have never used condoms. They are expensive and inaccessible, and why, Reggie asks, does he even need one? "When my girlfriend gets pregnant, I take her to the hospital, no problem."

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