Comrades of the People's Republic

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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."

Abortion is Reggie's method of birth control, and with China's one-child policy, abortions are easy to come by. Reggie is not worried about disease; he feels Chinese woman are safe, and that the Westerners are, too, because the government requires HIV tests before it grants visas to outsiders. It is true that expats who plan to live in China on extended visas must be tested. But the 30-day visa most travelers use does not require an HIV test, and the people Reggie is most likely to come in contact with in his tourist-destination town -- including the American woman he slept with earlier this year -- hold these short-term visas. In short, Reggie, like most in his generation of mainland Chinese, is completely ill-informed about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and how they are spread.

As China's younger generation becomes sexually freer, giving gays a chance to follow suit, the lack of education about AIDS and safe sex is creating an increasingly dangerous STD situation. The government's Health Ministry admits there are 400,000 HIV cases in China. Given the country's population -- 1.2 billion -- many feel the actual number of infections has to be much, much higher.


Reggie and Kevin run a small cafe that caters to Western backpackers who pass through their Yunnan province town before beginning the hike through the Yangtze River's expansive Tiger Leaping Gorge. That's where I met them.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" Reggie asked not long after we met.

"No," I replied, pausing for a moment before deciding to see what would happen if I told him the truth. "I have a boyfriend."

"I have many boyfriends, too," Reggie said, clearly not getting it.

I laughed.

"You don't understand," I said. "I have a boyfriend like you have a girlfriend."

Reggie looked perplexed. But then he smiled. Now he got it.

As Kevin sat down at the table, Reggie engaged him in a long conversation in Mandarin. I sat patiently, wondering what they were saying.

"I don't understand this for me, but I can understand it for other people who are this way and are in love. I think it is no problem," Reggie declared.

The young men welcomed me, instantly, as a friend. They insisted I hang out with them as they discussed their lives and asked me questions about mine.

"Tell us more about this topic," Kevin asked; he was especially intrigued when he learned that my boyfriend here in San Francisco is Chinese.

Then Kevin told me about a female friend he grew up with who married an American man and moved to the U.S. Later, she divorced and began dating women. "My friend has told me about these new ideas," Kevin said.

But I was the first openly gay person Reggie had met and could count as a friend.

"I think there must be more gay people in the U.S.A. and not so many in China," he said.

I told Kevin and Reggie about the famous Kinsey study, which asserts that as much as 10 percent of the general population is gay. I also told them about newer studies that say the ratio could be as low as 2 in 100.

"So maybe 5 percent of China is gay," I said.

Again, a flurry of Mandarin between Kevin and Reggie. They seemed to be calculating numbers.

"Wow, 50 million?" Reggie said. "That is so many."

Joel P. Engardio (Joel.Engardio@sfweekly.com) can be reached atSF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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