China rediscovering a more tolerant past

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 10:10am

It could have been a scene straight from an Ang Lee movie. But this real-life incident from last week speaks volumes about gay rights and culture in contemporary China.

An elderly gay couple hosts a wedding banquet with two dozen guests at a Beijing restaurant to celebrate their "marriage". One is reportedly a retired teacher and the other a migrant worker. The ex-teacher's irate son shows up, denounces their relationship and smashes up the place. The couple, who have previously posted intimate photos of themselves on their microblog, complain that the son's behaviour has made them lose face. Their blog has attracted almost 20,000 followers.

The father no doubt expects his son to show more filial respect. The son finds their relationship appalling.

What is perhaps remarkable is that it was kept mostly as a family affair as no police or neighbourhood officials were involved. No one was arrested. To the extent that it was public, the discussions were started by the couple's microblog, which attracted both praise and criticism from other internet users.

Such openness would not have been possible before 1997, when homosexuality was an offence. It was only in 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses.

Much work remains to be done to end widespread discrimination. And, of course, cosmopolitan cities like Beijing are more accommodating than elsewhere on the mainland. But China is moving in the right direction in its increasingly tolerant attitude towards gays and lesbians.

In a sense, Chinese are rediscovering an old tolerance that was lost during the modern period, much of which had to do with Western and Christian anti-gay influence.

As shown in its literature and poetry, ancient China had none of the violent, homophobic hatred displayed by Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So it may be easier for China in the 21st century to become more tolerant and open about homosexuality.