Lesbian phase

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2006, 12:00am

A movement is emerging from the capital's universities and spreading rapidly into cafes and bars specifically opened to cater to it. Helped by foreigners newly arrived in the city, it seems more and more young women are 'discovering' that they are gay, to the point where it almost seems to be trendy.

But is this a revelation, or simply a kind of freedom of expression that has not been shut down by authorities - a way for these young women to be 'different'?

Contrary to popular belief, homosexuality has never been officially illegal in China, although arrests have been made in southern China in the past for what is officially known as 'hooliganism'.

In fact, it has been kept under wraps more by social taboo than by officialdom.

In Beijing, while not exactly encouraged, it is 'certainly not repressed', as one member of the gay community put it.

But the surprising thing about Beijing's gay scene is the sheer number of strictly lesbian bars and cafes.

While some better-known, mainly male gay bars, such as On/Off, close down or cut their number of gay nights, bars purely for women are opening and staying open.

Discussion groups and websites have been set up in Chinese and English. Newspaper agony-aunt columns, such as 21st Century, are inundated with letters from lovesick lesbians and girls questioning their sexuality.

Columnist Lizi Hesling wrote the first widely noticed such letter about the gay issue last year, and since then hundreds of letters have been received. Features about lesbianism are freely published, and Time Out Beijing, a franchise of a London magazine, has its own gay female columnist.

'I don't know if it's straight girls going through a phase, or whatever - but it's amazing how packed these bars are with youngsters nowadays,' says 'Jane', a 29-year-old lesbian from Britain who came to Beijing six years ago. 'Beijing's a good place to be gay, especially if you're new at it.'

You only have to look at the sensation of Super Girl, an unapproved talent contest based on the American Idol hit series. Many of the girls who starred are widely considered 'dyke' icons, with butch clothing and short, spiky hair. They are imitated all over the city's campuses.

DVD shops quickly sell out of The L Word, an American series about lesbians.

But I'm not convinced that swathes of young, gay women are suddenly 'finding themselves' in Beijing.

They might have found a way to be different but, as more jump on this wagon, even that can only be short-lived.