After graduating from college in 1996, Li Jun found a job in a state aviation company in Xi'an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi. Born to a farmer family, after Li secured an elusive urban residence certificate, he became the pride of his family. His father, now 70, and four sisters were eager to host an elaborate wedding ceremony in their hometown for him to "bring honor to the ancestors and carry on the ancestral line," as the elder Li put it.
Li's colleagues were zealous to set up the young engineer with a promising future with women. But, it was soon apparent that Li could not fit the mold. His coworkers would act disappointed after Li consistently turned down dates. "Hey guy, are you gay?" they sometimes joked. Li's only defense was silence.
"I can't imagine what it would be like if I get married," he said. " I feel so depressed with girls. I have nothing to say."
Li considers his sexual orientation to be innate, not a social decision.
Though no official statistics are available, some independent studies estimate that there are more than 10 million homosexuals in the Chinese mainland. Tongzhi, a gender-neutral term that literally means "comrade," is sometimes used as slang in Mandarin Chinese to refer to homosexuality.
Historically, social stigma surrounding homosexuality in China has been repressive. From the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 through the 1980s, homosexuals were labeled as "hooligans." Officially sanctioned repression didn't stop until 1991.
Some 10 years later, in 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association published its new diagnostic report. One thing that was noticeably absent from its list of mental disorders was something that had been included for decades: homosexuality. Only three years ago being gay was officially no longer considered a mental illness.
Though there are no formal laws against homosexuality, the social life of Chinese gays has been forced to exist underground for years. Because of a particularly strong traditional obligation in Chinese culture to produce offspring for the family, the expectation that one should have a heterosexual marriage is one of the biggest pressures with which homosexuals must cope.
Li has not returned to his hometown for Spring Festival, as most do for the Chinese equivalent to Christmas, for several years. He said he couldn't face his father, who has repeatedly expressed his desire for a grandson. "How can I tell him I'm a gay?" said Li.
One third of gay men on the mainland choose heterosexual marriage under pressure to fit into mainstream culture, according to Zhang Baichuan, an expert from Qingdao University on homosexuality. But while almost half of them maintain sexual relations with their wives, gay men have had sex with 5.3 men, on average, Zhang's survey shows.
Li is determined to remain single. "[Marriage] could only make things worse. To me, it would be a disaster."
Chinese society is slowly showing some tolerance toward homosexuality. In addition to consultation hotlines, there are websites through which people can meet and discuss issues surrounding homosexuality. In big cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, bars and clubs that are expressly homoerotic have sprung up, including one in Beijing that is furnished with a mirror covering the wall in the men's restroom along which the urinals are aligned.
Few homosexuals are open about their sexual orientation. Paw Paw, a web page designer for an IT company, is one of them. Paw Paw's relatively high salary gives him access to the Internet and the extra cash to go to gay bars, which are generally Western-style and comparatively pricey. "If asked whether I am a gay, I would be very frank. My parents and friends all understand me," he said.
Paw Paw came to terms with his homosexuality during senior middle school, or when he was about 16 years old. Anxious about what others might think, he bought a book about gay life and placed it on his parents' desk. His parents understood their son's message. Though admittedly shocked, they accepted it.
"No matter what happens to you, just be the best person you can be and that is enough," his mother assured him.
But Paw Paw's parents are an exception. As many Chinese still regard homosexuality as abnormal, disgraceful or distasteful, gays generally avoid mainstream society. This underground culture has exacerbated health risks that everyone faces.
Statistics show that transmission of HIV among homosexual is rising. Prevalence rates of HIV positive gay men are as high as 3-5 percent in some places. Many of them admit to having unprotected sex and having multiple partners, both of which increase the likelihood of the spread of AIDS. The social stigma gays in China face compounds the problem of the lack of education about the disease. According to a study, those who cannot afford to go to gay bars or nightclubs look for casual sex in public washrooms, parks or public shower facilities.
An HIV prevention program launched in early March by the Zhejiang Provincial Health Bureau and the Howard Brown Health Center, the largest private provider of HIV/AIDS services in the United States, conducted the first HIV tests in China. They also offer counseling in gay bars in Hangzhou, the provincial capital. Of the approximately 60 gay men who have accepted HIV testing through the program, over 3 percent have been diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
There are around 10,000 gay men in urban Hangzhou, according to a local medical expert.
Studies show that gay men are particularly vulnerable to the deadly virus. Experts agree that sex is a common way that HIV is transmitted. Zhang Baichuan believes China is not doing enough to prevent same-sex transmission of the virus.
In the Sino-US program, free HIV testing and counseling are provided in gay entertainment venues. Tests are conducted every Saturday night, while brochures promoting safe sex are also distributed.
Guangdong has begun to offer free and confidential HIV tests. The AIDS Prevention and Treatment Institute of the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control commenced the tests in October. The examinations are intended to help the institute research the spread of HIV among gay men, who, according to experts, make up about 2-4 percent of the local population.
Sources close to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Heilongjiang said China, teaming up with medial organizations from the United States, has started its first national survey of the number of homosexuals and HIV-positive gay people. Wu Yuhua, Deputy Director of the CDC Virus Control Office, who was in charge of the survey, said the Sino-American program aims to improve technical and managerial know-how in AIDS research, testing and treatment. Heilongjiang, one of the 10 provinces participating in the program, which it won through a bid, has established the only center that monitors transmission of HIV among homosexual in the country.
"It's imperative to find out the size of homosexual community in China, as well as the number of those with HIV, so as to formulate prevention measures," Zhang said.
(Beijing Review October 28, 2004)