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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January 2004, 00:21 GMT
Out of the closet in China
By Yuen Chan
In Shanghai

The name is intentionally vague. Shanghai Sexual Minorities Hotline might not mean anything to most people, but those in the gay community recognise it immediately.

Some nights are slow, with only a few callers. Tonight the calls come in one after another.

Steven Gu, hotline volunteer and fulltime activist (Odilon Couzin)
Steven Gu gives advice on relationship problems and stigma
Volunteers give out advice and information about Aids and sexually transmitted diseases.

But mainly they provide counselling and support.

Steven Gu, a hotline volunteer and full-time activist, said most calls centred around relationship and marriage anxieties, and social pressure.

He said gay people in China often struggled to make friends.

"Actually it is easy with the internet but some people are so scared because of stories of blackmail.

"Unfortunately we're not a dating service," he said, laughing. "Maybe we should start one."

Another volunteer, PhD student David, dished out advice to a caller who was afraid to tell his girlfriend he was gay.

Everyone has the right to pursue love and sex, it's a basic human right
David, hotline volunteer

"Only you can make the decision," said David, "but if there's no love you don't have to continue the relationship and get married."

As China opens up, the country's urban gays are slowly coming out.

China officially struck homosexuality off the list of mental illnesses two years ago and even smaller cities now boast gay bars and meeting places.

Through the internet Chinese gays now have unprecedented access to information about developments in gay rights from overseas sources.

"Everyone has the right to pursue love and sex," said David. "it's a basic human right."

That view is being increasingly discussed and even accepted, especially in academic circles.

Standing room only

In a sign that mainstream attitudes towards homosexuals are becoming more liberal, Shanghai's Fudan University, one of the country's leading universities, ran a course on homosexuality.

There was a gasp when Professor Li cited a study that found 16% of Chinese male university students have had a homosexual experience

It was the first of its kind to be offered at a Chinese university and although only one student officially registered to take the course for credits, the lectures were packed.

There was standing room only for latecomers when prominent sociologist Li Yinhe gave a lecture about homosexual sub-cultures.

For many of the students, the lecture was a real eye-opener. There was a gasp when Professor Li cited a study that found 16% of Chinese male university students have had a homosexual experience.

Ms Li is famous in China for her pioneering work on sexuality, and also for an attempt to get China's parliament to pass a law on same-sex marriage.

"I drafted a proposal, found a delegate who submitted it to parliament," Ms Li explained, "but the delegate couldn't find the 30 people needed to get it on the agenda. The initiative was very well received by the gay community but unfortunately their voices are very weak."

Ms Li does not think China will embrace same-sex unions any time soon. But the fact she could make the proposal at all was seen as a breakthrough.

Spreading the word

Although homosexuality was never specifically outlawed in the People's Republic of China, it was regarded as a social disgrace.

Gays were viewed as politically suspect and were persecuted under "hooliganism" laws. Those laws were scrapped in 1997, and in 2001, homosexuality was finally taken off the list of mental illnesses.

The internet is the channel that has really brought Chinese gays into contact with each other and with news, ideas and information

The more relaxed climate has encouraged a blossoming of sorts for gay culture. Another lecturer in the Fudan series, Washington-based writer and activist Er Yan, said that when he left for the United States 12 years ago, gay culture barely existed in China.

"[We were] totally isolated, didn't know anyone," he said. "Later I found out there were cruising places in Beijing and some parks etc, but I'd never been there. I read the word 'homosexual' in the newspapers but its mention was very cursory. No reports, nothing."

As for HIV/Aids, which was already a critical issue among gay communities in other countries, Er Yan said there was almost no news about it in China.

"At that time, news about Aids began to emerge in China and sometimes the word 'homosexual' would appear in relation to it," he says, "but beyond that nothing else."

Er Yan, who also runs a website featuring academic research on gay issues, said there was more coverage of gay issues in the mainstream Chinese media these days.

David and Steven Gu (Odilon Couzin)
The hotline marks a new openness for gays in China
But the internet is the channel that has really brought Chinese gays into contact with each other and with news, ideas and information.

In November 2001, gay webmasters held a secret meeting in Beijing. There are now hundreds of gay websites in China and the number is growing all the time.

Gay culture maybe gathering strength in China but despite the influences from the West and other Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Er Yan predicted any developing movement would have distinctly Chinese characteristics.

'Quiet revolution'

He said it would be quieter, and without the open activism that is common in other countries.

"The US has a strong influence across the world," he said, "and the gay rights cause in the US has been at many times considered a model for other countries to follow, which some folks here really don't agree with because Chinese people are much more passive.

"If you asked them in a contemporary political environment to go onto the streets and launch a demonstration, I don't think anyone would."

But while there may be a quiet revolution going on amongst gay communities in China's cities, both Er Yan and Steven stressed gays in China's vast countryside had yet to feel the benefits.

Gay rights in China have come a long way, they said, but there is a lot further to go.

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