How a Beijing retiree became a go-between for gays trying to come out to their parents
Lu Rong was in her late 50s when she first met a gay man. She was surfing the internet four years ago when she stumbled across a curious blog entry: 'I'm in a real dilemma over my mother's phone call.'
'When I saw it, I thought it was very strange,' says Lu, 61, a retired market researcher. 'He obviously loved his mother very much, so why was he afraid to pick up her call? I have a son myself.'
After rereading the blog several times and examining those of his friends that were linked to the page, it dawned on her that he was a thirtysomething gay man who didn't know how to deal with his mother's eagerness to see him married. 'I left him a message. I said: 'Why don't you find a lesbian to marry and then your mother will be happy?''
He wrote back the next day, saying that he was moved and had never imagined a woman of Lu's age would be so open-minded. 'He told me my message made him cry,' she says. 'And then I made friends with him. That's the kind of person I am.'
Little did Lu know that the chance meeting would result in her publishing the mainland's first officially sanctioned book about the lives of homosexuals, their lovers and their families.
The blogger introduced her to his friends, and soon Lu went from being a retired divorcee with too much time on her hands to a surrogate mother to dozens of gay men. She organised discussion groups on sexual identity and acted as a go-between for gay men struggling to come out to their parents. The book she wrote to tell their tales, Those Gay Children of Mine, was published by Shanghai Joint Publishing this summer under her pen name, Old Ou.
While the government maintains an unspoken rule of 'no support, no prohibition and no promotion' when it comes to homosexuality, over the past five years, the 'no support' clause has increasingly fallen by the wayside. The mainland media is now much more willing to adopt a sympathetic and positive attitude to the gay and lesbian community.
But what makes Lu's book so remarkable is that she and her family members are straight.
Last year, another middle-aged woman, Wu Youjian of Guangdong province, published a book about China's gay community called Love is the Most Beautiful Rainbow. Wu's son is gay, and both of them have been involved in gay activism in China for several years.
Those Gay Children of Mine is split into six chapters, each dealing with a different story. The first is that of the blogger who opened her eyes to the gay world, whom she calls Er Dong. (All the names in the book have been changed to protect their identities.) She also writes about the divorced wife of a gay man, a former convict who had a gay relationship in prison but became straight after he was freed, two lesbians who married two gay men to please the parents of all four, and a mother who was initially hostile to her son's homosexuality but now lives happily with him and his boyfriend.
Before she met Er Dong, Lu had only a hazy idea of what being gay meant. She grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution - a time when, she recalls, sodomists were listed as criminals along with thieves. 'When I grew older, I just thought it was a deviant sexual behaviour, something abnormal,' she says. 'It wasn't something I thought about. My generation is embarrassed to talk about straight sex, never mind homosexual relationships.'
She said she was able to understand Er Dong's predicament because she worked for more than a dozen years in market research. 'In this profession you are interested in people's opinions only. There is no right answer and no wrong answer ... So I developed an open mind, and I am willing to experience new things,' she explains.
Lu says that first night when she read Er Dong's blog and those of his friends she was startled to realise that there were so many gay people. 'I started reading their blogs, and it made me think the world isn't like I imagined.' She says she realised that homosexuality wasn't abnormal or deviant.
Lu has made a lot of friends in Beijing's gay circles, where she is known affectionately as Auntie Ou.
Xiao Cai (not his real name), a 35-year-old gay man living in Beijing, has known Lu for about three years.
'Auntie Ou is very special. She is open-minded and she is kind,' he says, adding that her book is quite an achievement. 'It's very hard for such a woman to write this kind of thing. It's incredible.'
The title is apt. Many of her gay friends see her as a mother figure, he says. Others ask her to intervene when they are trying to come out to their families.
Lu explains her tactics in this situation. 'I ask the parents, do you love your child? Do you trust your child? If you love your child, then you shouldn't use your own standards to make demands on him. Generally, mothers find it easier to accept, but fathers have a real problem.'
As a mother herself, Lu has the advantage of being able to see the situation from both sides. It's not always the parents' fault, she says. 'If you can't accept yourself as a gay person, how can you expect your parents to accept you?' She also stresses the importance of being financially independent. 'You have to make your parents trust you, to trust that you have made the right choices ... If you don't earn your own money, your parents will think you are still a child.'
Part of the reason she wrote the book, she says, was to spread the word among parents of gay children and people of her generation. The turning point for her was the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which led her to draw parallels with the lives of her new gay friends.
'The quake buried a lot of people ... and I thought, in a certain way, it was similar to these gay children and their pain. They have also been buried. I wanted to dig them out and tell their parents to give them respect, stop caring about whether their child is straight or gay. I wanted to write their stories so that when people of my age group see the word 'homosexual' they don't just think about sodomy or scandal.'
Naturally, the book has enjoyed a warm reception among the gay community, but that's not her target audience. 'This book is for the parents of gay children,' she says.
She plans to use her connections with the Production and Construction Corps in Heilongjiang from her Cultural Revolution days to market her book and its message. It's too early yet to gauge the reaction, although several of her corps friends came to a recent book fair in Shanghai to help her. Her son, she chuckles, has been supportive, but she feels it is more from a desire to keep her from meddling in his own life. He is married and runs the market research firm she set up in the 1990s.
Xiao Cai says he hopes the book will help, but stresses there are limits to its influence. 'It will help those people who have open-minded parents, but it won't help if they are conservative and closed-minded.' His mother accepts his sexual orientation, but he has never had the courage to tell his father, a retired military man. 'I can't imagine what would happen if I told him. He wouldn't understand,' he says.
It is clear that Lu's immersion into Beijing's gay circles has given her a new lease on life. 'After I retired, I thought that I was entering my twilight years and all I had left to do was to grow old. But when I got Er Dong's reply, I suddenly felt that I am still useful.'
Now, she says, most of her friends are gay men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. 'Straight youths just see me as an old woman. They don't know what to talk to me about. But because gay men have all this pressure from society, whenever they meet someone who accepts them for who they are, they are friendly.' She says her gay friends often thank her for being their spokeswoman. And she always replies: 'No, it's you who have helped me. You've made me feel like I'm worth something in my old age.'