This post originally appeared at Seeing Red in China, republished with permission.
Several years ago, when I was working in a very rural university, I hosted a group of college graduates from the United States. They were invited to visit with the students, and one of them became very popular with the girls in class. He always had more attention than any of the others, perhaps because he was incredibly friendly, had a bright smile, and was by most accounts handsome. However, what the fawning girls didn’t notice was that my friend was gay.
So after a week or so of having girls ask for his QQ number, I asked if he would be willing to host a very special English corner. Even though it was specifically in my contract that I was not to challenge traditional Chinese ideas about homosexuality* (which Richard Burger would point out, are actually a new construction), I decided that the students would find such a conversation interesting and hoped that it would expand their world view.
So after closing the doors and the windows, my friend explained to fifty students from rural China what it meant to be a gay man in the United States. He wasn’t quite sure what their reaction would be, but it was far more supportive than either one of us had expected. The students didn’t seem to understand why anyone would care. The questions focused mostly on how his family reacted, and several students wondered whether or not I was scared to be friends with a gay man. One girl after the session, who clearly didn’t quite get it, slipped him a note telling him how attractive he was and gave him her number just in case he wasn’t really gay.
Several hours later I received a text from a student who had grown up in the countryside asking if he could meet with my friend and I. That night he told us a truth about himself that he had never admitted to another person, that he too was homosexual. He said it was something he had always known, but had been too afraid to say out loud. That was until he heard a story that sounded so much like his own.
My friend, who was leaving the next day, worked frantically with this student to try and come up with some sort of plan. They knew it was too risky for him to come out to his classmates even though it meant suffering through another two years of people wondering where his girlfriend was, and his only hope was to move to a big city like Shanghai or better yet, overseas. The student though was far more realistic, he said, “I should just marry a woman, it would be too hard for my family to accept a gay son.” None of us tried to deny the fact that homosexuality is not tolerated in rural China, but we also didn’t want him (and his wife) to live that lie.
As Richard Burger details competently in his book, Behind the Red Door, attitudes towards homosexuality are changing quickly in China and this seems to be supported (not everywhere), but not when it comes to one’s own family. The sentiment seems to be “why would I care if someone in another family is gay?” but there’s a markedly different attitude if it is their relative. As my student lamented, “My parents want me to have kids, and I should just make them happy.” To which my friend replied, “But what about your happiness?”
I’m glad to say several years later my student has given up the notion that his parents’ desires for his life trump who he is.
*This part of the contract was not from my church, we believe that all people are created by God as they are.
Read more insights about contemporary China at Seeing Red in China.
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