On the whole, attitudes easing towards gays

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 2010, 12:00am

We intended to welcome signs of increasing tolerance by mainland authorities. That was before Beijing police forced organisers of the mainland's first gay pageant to cancel it, just an hour before it was to begin on Friday night. Now we are not so sure. The event had been widely reported in advance, including in state media, and a rehearsal on Thursday passed without incident. The government appeared to have accepted it, before police said the organisers did not have approval for a performance event, in this case a fashion show and a host in drag.

The mixed message is a blow to those hoping for a more open official attitude to the mainland's 30 to 40 million gays and lesbians, but perhaps it should be filed instead as a nascent sign of change. After all, an increasing number of gay and lesbian events have reported minimal official interference, including the mainland's first gay pride festival in Shanghai last June and the Beijing Queer Film Festival the same month, and state media is giving the topic some coverage. Despite Friday's reversal, gays have come a long way on the mainland. Sixty years ago, homosexuality was demonised as a disease of the decadent West that could undermine the new people's republic. As a result, gays suffered decades of harsh persecution and were driven underground by social and workplace ostracism. Homosexuality was declassified as a mental disorder only in 2001. In the rest of the world, gays still fight moral rejection by religion. In atheist China, such prejudice has turned to indifference, if not tolerance of diversity, especially among city dwellers. Hopefully, less rigid official attitudes reflect that.

Some of the eight contestants in the gay pageant were still apprehensive about shocking their parents by coming out so publicly, because of traditional expectations that a son will marry and produce grandchildren. For that we can blame the parents rather than the state. But because of the part played by the state's one-child policy, perhaps not. Either way, less official interference in the daily lives of China's citizens is welcome.