Yuting Zhang (she/they)
Among the LGBTQ+ community, coming out has been considered a declaration of identity and an act of bravery. For many queers, coming out is a must-have moment:it is the official establishment of queer identity that often comes with a thrill, an end of hiding, pretense and involuntary secrecy, and a new chapter of life. But for most queers in China, the opening of this chapter takes a heavy toll.
“Coming out to my family is the worst decision I've made. They blame me for everything. They said they've lost faith in life–unless I become straight.”
Recalled Yuke, a chinese international student at University of Michigan, College of Engineering. Ever since she came out as a lesbian when she was 16, her stress issue has been worsening. Yuke's parents denied her identity saying, "she could not be gay with straight parents," yet "suspecting every girl around her to be her girlfriend."
"It was draining my energy. I got interrogated for every female I hang out with. Whenever I mentioned my homosexuality, Mom would go crazy, screaming that I'm a murderer–they bet their money and time on me but I'm letting them down."
Yuke was born and raised in an upper middle-class family in southwestern China, where both law and societal morals assume heterosexuality in marriage, sexual assault and intimate relationships and refuse to think otherwise. In retrospect, Yuke describes her family’s expectation for filial piety as “not extreme but suffocating in particular aspects.” Yuke has been a straight A student throughout her life, winning innumerable awards and honors, but has never met her parents’ standard of hardworking. “I had to score 100% every single time to not fail them and my upbringing. I was, in fact, used to being a failure, which surprisingly made my coming-out confrontation easier-just a matter of becoming a bigger failure. But once I got used to constantly failing a standard, I became disillusioned with the standard itself.” Thus, Yuke gave up on her effort to please her parents, and found herself at peace.
Despite the adversity she faced, Yuke considers herself lucky; partially because she seized the opportunity to study abroad, escaping her parents' scope of influence. In the US, she met a group of queer friends and her girlfriend Julian, who is a runaway just like her. Yuke is still in touch with her parents, but with established boundaries and a much more composed mindset. “The best balance we can find–they don’t ask, and I don’t tell.”
Queers living in mainland China immersed in the confucianism culture, on the other hand, might not be this lucky.
I met Liu at an underground lesbian bar in Shanghai, one of the most diverse and open-minded cities in China. Still, Liu ran away from her family when she was fourteen. More precisely, she was abandoned for being a lesbian. "I was bold and didn't fully know the consequences. Money wasn't an issue as my mom felt bad and gave me a few hundreds each month. But she got beaten up when my dad found out. Life's been hard ever since."
To earn a living, Liu exhausted her efforts to find a job. She worked in factories, restaurants, bars and karaokes. With her incredible resilience, she eventually settled down as a barista in Changsha city. When asked about her opinion on these years’ surviving and striving, Liu admits that her masculine appearance, which fits into the binary standard of the heterosexual, male-dominant society, helped her out. On the contrary, “not being a real man” brings her trouble in dating and maintaining a long-term relationship.
“I often feel lucky about my masculine appearance-I’m a butch lesbian, you see. It’s my masculinity that kept me safe and earned recognition from male coworkers and employers.”
“Dating is extremely annoying. All my ex-girlfriends ended up getting married to men. They are lesbians, but they married anyway. Pathetic.”
Liu’s frustration is not an exception. A considerable number of homosexuals in China eventually choose to enter a heterosexual relationship and pretend for their entire life. Most of the time the decision is forced–it is not uncommon for parents to threaten their own life for their children to “become straight”. Worse, queers might suffer from violence and rape as part of their “correction” to “restore heterosexuality.”
If queer people in mainland China are in a drought of despair, there is still a trickle of hope from the young generation and open-minded elders.
I have known Shaw as the only queer student besides me at my highschool. Shaw had meticulously stayed in the closet for 18 years and perfected his skill of feigning heterosexuality, even going on fake dates with me to assure the rest of the class of our straightness. Shaw persisted in his pretense in fear of letting his loving mother down, but the idea of basking in her conditional love tortured him the same as the fear. Shaw eventually decided to “buffer-come-out” to his mother as pansexual, while he is in fact gay “so that she wouldn’t be too devastated as I could still have heterosexual marriage and lead a normal life.” Yet when he finally declared his “pansexuality,” he was shocked by his mother confiding that she was pansexual too. “It is already surprising and heartwarming… that my parent knew about those queer concepts and was not disgusted. And she herself is queer!” Shaw later discovered that his mother is also a member of “Queer moms,” an organization based in Chengdu and consisted of mothers of queer children, advocating equal rights for their sons and daughters.
In Yuke’s hometown, Chongqing, queer organizations are secretly sprouting like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. “The last time I paid a visit, I went to five lesbian bars-the number is truly remarkable.” Among the bars, Infinite Reverie, hidden in an urban apartment complex, is Yuke’s favorite. “Lesbians from across the country, dozens of us, gathered together. We had those sentimental, passionate and kinky moments that we could find nowhere else.”
As the global queer community is expanding and striving for more visibility, the queers in China are motivated and empowered, despite the government’s “internet great wall” blocking most outside online sources. The sentiment of LGBTQ+ rights escalated following the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Moreover, literature works featuring romantic relationships between gay characters (Danmei/bl and gl) have become viral among young girls, while the “shipping” culture-admiring two, often same-sex, celebrities as a couple-has normalized the presence of homosexuality, especially among the youngest generation. “People around my age are starting to realize the heteronormative narrative of our society is wrong. Many of my friends discovered they are LGBTQ+ around their twenties, while it could’ve taken the elder generation their whole life to figure out. The situation has definitely gotten better. I shall wait for the world to come.” Yuke said.