San Francisco Chronicle: Beijing's homosexuals live in the shadows (Aug 22 2008)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Beijing's homosexuals live in the shadows
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

(08-22) 04:00 PDT Beijing -- The Beijing Olympics have not changed anything for Benjamin Han. He is still gay, still single and still compelled to hide his orientation from public view.

The 28-year-old employee of a large international public relations firm is one of an estimated 5 million to 10 million gay men in China who live, for the most part, in the shadows.

Homosexuality has only been legal for 11 years in China. Although the Chinese Psychiatric Association took it off the list of psychiatric disorders in 2001, same-sex unions are still considered immoral by the authorities.

The modernization of Beijing in preparation for the Olympics actually made things worse for gays. Several gay clubs were bulldozed during the frenzy of street-widening and high-rise building during the run-up to the games.

"It's probably more restricted in Beijing than in other cities in the country," said Han, sitting in a fashionable bar near his home in east Beijing. "In general, it is still very much a taboo topic. You don't talk about it at work, you don't talk about it with your family. You only talk about it when the other person knows something about it already and you really trust them."

The government-controlled media in China sometimes hints about the subject, but it is never openly discussed. Han said he knows several Chinese journalists through his work who have told him there have been written notices from the propaganda department telling them not to bring up the subject.

Han was born in suburban Guangzhou. He was an only child, which is standard in China, and both of his parents worked, so a nanny took him to school. He said his mother and father were not like most other Chinese parents, who make most decisions for their children.

"I was growing up on my own most of the time," he said. "It is not that they didn't care. It is that they just couldn't understand what I was up to."

He came to Beijing in 2000 to study English and American literature and culture at the Beijing Institute of Technology. He continued his studies for one year in the United Kingdom, which opened his eyes to a wider world.

"There is a degree of choice and freedom that does not exist here," Han said. "It was more or less a surprise."

But Han, who goes by a Chinese name with his family and friends in China, never told his parents that he is gay and does not plan to do so. Only a few of his friends know the truth.

His mother has been pressuring him to get married and have children, and he keeps putting her off.

"I actually tried to have a girlfriend to please my parents," he said of a two-year relationship he had with a childhood friend that ended three years ago. "It was difficult in the sense that I didn't want it to get too far."

Han tells his mother now that he doesn't want to get married because he wants to concentrate on his career.

Despite these pressures, he sees himself as lucky that his work allows him to travel, meet people and stay informed, whereas most gay men and lesbians in China live lonely, secretive lives, in which finding partners can be an ordeal.

The only gay club left in Beijing is a place called Destination, a gray concrete block near several glamorous heterosexual night spots near the west gate of Workers' Stadium in eastern Beijing's Chaoyang area. On weekend nights, it is packed with trendy young Chinese residents, corporate mavericks, Olympic tourists and expatriates. Han said many call it "Desperation."

Lesbians are not much better off. There is just one club, West Wing, that caters to them.

There is a group called Pro Men, which hooks up professionals who are gay, Han said, and gay-themed Web sites featuring local chat rooms. There is even a chat room for gay Buddhists. But, for the most part, the gay scene in Beijing is restricted to clandestine Internet affairs. No one is openly hostile, according to Han, but the community is ignored, passed off as a Western problem.

"I would like to see a more liberal media environment where people could comment on the subject and have a discussion," Han said. "You see that in places like Hong Kong and Thailand. Singapore is also closed, but they have at least opened up discussion."

There were promising signs a few years ago when several new gay clubs opened and some of the trendy night spots began holding gay- and lesbian-friendly nights. In 2005, there was an International Gay and Lesbian film festival in Beijing. But tourists can no longer expect to learn about the gay life of emperors on a tour of the Forbidden City.

"Things could change in China in the next 10 years, but I'm not looking forward to the wait," Han said. "This is a Confucian society, and these values are not going to go away."

E-mail Peter Fimrite at

This article appeared on page A - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle