The Chinese Psychiatric Association decided that being gay is no longer a disease in the third edition of its new diagnostic guidelines published on April 20th this year.
This landmark event - and the subsequent attention given to homosexuality in all kinds of media in which experts discussed the decision as progress that brings China in line with most western nations, which do not consider being gay an illness - has helped Chinese to rethink the specific social phenomenon of homosexuality.
"Just several years ago, I thought homosexuals were something far away. Now, they are coming out, and they are around us," said Wang Li, a magazine editor. "Today, I am not shocked on hearing that one of our acquaintances is a homosexual."
Research shows that same-sex love has existed in almost every culture – even in animals – dating back to the very beginnings of history. However, it is still not an easy job for mainstream Chinese society to understand.
Historically, the social prohibitions in China that have surrounded homosexuality have been repressive and almost universal. Though there are no laws against homosexuality in China, Chinese gay life has existed solely underground for years in a conservative country that now faces an historic reversal of long-standing social policy. Since it was a traditional obligation in China to bring offspring to the family, homosexuality was considered a threat not only to families but also to the society.
"Homosexuality used to be called a perversion," recalled one source who asked to remain anonymous.
Being a minority sexual group, Chinese homosexuals have had to remain isolated for fear of being punished. They have had to hide their emotions; meanwhile having to behave like others. For many, that has proved a psychological barrier. However, the past ten years have seen changes, and the psychiatric association’s decision removes a final official barrier to tolerance for gays and lesbians in China.
The change reflects an about-face in China: In 1994, the Chinese Psychiatric Association published a handbook stating its strong opposition to the World Health Organization’s call for accepting homosexuality. But in 1997 the Chinese government eliminated the criminal category of "hooliganism." Thus China followed a similar path to that of the United States: The American Psychiatric Association "depathologized" homosexuality in 1973; however, it wasn’t until 1986 that the APA removed all reservations about sexual orientation.
Prof. Liu Dalin, a well-known sociologist from Shanghai University, said: "The general public’s understanding towards homosexuality can be divided into three stages: in the first stage homosexuals are sinful; in the second stage homosexuals are sick; in the third stage, homosexuals are normal. Now China is in somewhere between stage one and stage two."
According to an Internet survey in 2000, the tolerance level of Chinese people towards homosexuality has already improved a lot. The following are the figures:
Among the 10,792 surveyed, 48.15 percent (5196) were in favor, 30.9 percent (3247) were against, 14.46 percent (1560) were undecided, and 7.26 percent (783) were indifferent.
Chinese society has become more tolerant.
"Homosexuality is as common in China as in other countries," an official at the American Embassy to Beijing said in 1996.
Back in the early 1990s, Prof. Liu Dalin conducted a sexual survey in 28 cities of 15 provinces in which the results turned out to be alarming to many in society: Among 20,000 selected interviewees, 0.5 percent of married urban residents, 2.3 percent of married rural residents, and 7.5 percent of college students were homosexuals.
The explosion of new wealth created by the liberalized economic policies of the last 20 years have given ordinary city-dwelling Chinese a measure of personal freedom without precedent in their history.
According to one study, Chinese homosexuals have already reached something between 360,000 and 480,000, the majority male.
So far, there are no open areas for Chinese "tongzhi," the slang for homosexual in China, but some bars and nightclubs have irregular parties. Most Chinese homosexuals have to have their social life on the streets, such as crossroads, washing rooms, parks, gardens and public shower centers.
"While life was becoming easier for gay Chinese, the gay community in China would likely remain unorganized," according to an article in the New York Times.
Though it is difficult for the outsiders to tell whether one is a homosexual or not, it is easy for homosexuals themselves, according to several interviews with homosexuals conducted by the author.
"Only a look is OK."
Now there is a national gay hotline as well as several social groups, including a lesbian organization called Beijing Sisters, according to some sources.
Also helping gays in China is the spread of the Internet. It is estimated that there are hundreds of web sites for gay Chinese.
The Times article noted that, as in the West, gay men and women flock to the big cities from smaller towns and villages for a deeper sense of belonging and community.
While many gay Chinese still consider their sexual orientation an affliction or malady like so many around the world, the younger generation are brave.
A senior student of Beijing Language and Culture University openly declared to his dormitory mates "I am gay. Why should I hide? I am no different from others."
But there is still a long way to go for Chinese gays and lesbians.
(Edited and translated by Zheng Guihong for china.org.cn according to reports on chinanews.com.cn October 31, 2001)