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(Note: This piece ran on 5/8/04 in the Boston Globe, on 5/9/04 in the Chicago Tribune, 5/5/04 in the SF Chronicle, 5/7/04 in the New York Blade and Washington Blade and 5/14/04 in the Southern Voice. This is the Chronicle's version.)

 

May 5, 2004

Gays in China taking steps toward equality at Hong Kong conference

What's routine in West is radical at secretive meeting

BY STEVE FRIESS

HONG KONG: It might have sounded like Homosexuality 101 to American ears, but when Rager Shen told his story, his listeners were stunned.

"I came out to my mother recently," the 21-year-old from Shanghai said plaintively to an audience of about 40 other Chinese tongzhi, or homosexuals. "I always wanted to tell her that I am gay, and, finally, I did it. She was very upset, but I told her the purpose was so that gays like myself could someday live more easily. She has calmed down a lot now."

Many sat in awe as Shen described his experience, insisting later that they could never do such a thing. Others pestered the slight, spiky-haired college freshman in a bright orange polo shirt about whether his act was selfish and whether he had merely unbur- dened himself by burdening his mother.

Shen argued that despite her anguished response -- she confined him to their home and confiscated his cell phone for a time -- he is "quite certain I did the right thing because she is my mother, and I want her to know me."

About 80 gays and lesbians from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan had taken four days off work and spent hundreds of dollars to attend the first Tongzhi Conference held in Hong Kong since 1999.

The conference, which concludes tonight at a remote seaside resort cradled by lush tropical hills about an hour northeast of downtown Hong Kong, was so secretive that attendees were not told until last week where it would be held, and only one journalist was invited to attend.

Donning rainbow necklaces on which they hung their name badges, the attendees listened to lectures on coming out, safe sex and same-sex dating, among others. These are routine topics for gays and lesbians in the West, but for this audience -- mostly people from mainland China who were able to travel to Hong Kong because of recently relaxed travel restrictions -- the gathering is an important, if primitive, step toward earning equality.

It reminded Roy Birchard of San Francisco of the earliest days of the American gay movement. Birchard, who attended the Tongzhi Conference, was a member of the Gay Activist Alliance, an advocacy group in the 1970s in New York City.

"This is a very important, inspiring event," said Birchard, who became interested in gay Asian issues through a Taiwanese lover who died of AIDS.

"We have come together to brainstorm and strategize about where the tongzhi movement should be and to reflect on what has transpired in the last few years," said organizer Chung To, whose nonprofit Chi Heng Foundation sponsored the event. Chi Heng is the region's largest gay organization, with an annual budget of $250,000 that includes $90,000 from the United Nations to fight the rapid spread of HIV on the mainland.

Perhaps the most significant development since the last conference has been the explosion of gay Chinese Web sites, now estimated by Chung to exceed 300. Government censors have been lax in curtailing Internet content dealing with homosexuality, even as they ban books and films on the subject, so thousands of gays and lesbians turn to online chat rooms and message boards to ease their sense of isolation.

The medium was so important in helping Echo Chen, 29, of Shanghai cope with her sexual orientation that she now hosts a site, www.lescn.net, that Webcasts China's first lesbian radio program. The 2-year-old site has 15,000 registered users and is supported in part by donations from four Chinese American lesbians in the United States, she said.

"I was so pleased to find out there were other girls like me," Chen said, recalling her discovery of gay Internet sites during her mid-20s. "I confirmed my identity on the Internet, so I'm very happy with what I'm doing now."

The status of gay rights varies across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Only in Hong Kong are homosexual acts explicitly legal, under a 1991 law passed during the British occupation. The island city, which was returned to China in 1997 but still operates with some autonomy, boasts one of Asia's busiest gay club scenes. This month's top film draw is "Enter the Phoenix," a comedy about a mob boss's gay son, and the movie's stars graced the cover of April's Chinese edition of Esquire magazine.

Taiwan, meanwhile, hosted the first Chinese gay pride parade in November. Legislation was even introduced last year to allow gay couples to "found a family and adopt children,'' but it was later shelved, and Taiwanese attendees at the Tongzhi Conference said they do not expect that to happen for at least a decade. Mainland China lags behind in recognition of gays. Only in 2001 did the Chinese Psychiatric Association's drop homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Although no law prohibits homosexuality and there is little harassment in major cities, there have been reports of police blackmailing gays in less cosmopolitan areas with threats of jail or exposure.

What is similar among China, Hong Kong and Taiwan is that few people feel appear to be comfortable coming out to their family, many conference attendees said. Single people often live with their parents well into adulthood if they have no legal spouse or cannot afford their own home, and a strong patriarchal tradition leaves most Chinese gays terrified of offending and humiliating their families. Instead, many conference attendees said, it is easier to leave the matter unspoken.

"They will know soon because I won't be married," explained one Taiwanese gay man who asked that his name not be used. "I don't think it's important to tell them directly. It would only hurt my mother, and my father will never understand."

Such an attitude frustrates Chung, who believes coming out will lead to more acceptance because the topic will seem less taboo.

"The problem with Chinese people is that when they get a little bit of freedom, they think, 'Oh, this is it,' " he complained. "Why join a revolution unless you are so oppressed that you can't bear it anymore?"

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