Queer getaways give China’s LGBT tourists a break from it all
Cities with thriving alternative scenes such as Bangkok and Taipei offer a welcome escape for the mainland’s LGBT community, a researcher says
Twenty-something Peking University graduate Luke often bumps into other gay men from mainland China on his trips around the region.
The Beijing-based media worker is a seasoned traveller to many LGBT-friendly destinations, jetting off regularly with a group to places such as Taipei and Bangkok with thriving queer scenes.
“You could call Thailand the gay Mecca of Southeast Asia,” he said.
Luke is keen to stay in Beijing to advance his career and is out to most of his friends and classmates, but the pink holidays are essential getaways from the more conservative gay bars in the Chinese capital.
Shenzhen university student Sam also makes regular trips across the mainland border to meet up with his adopted LGBT family in Hong Kong.
He met them through the gay dating app Grindr during his first trip to the city last summer and together they visit gay bars in Central and Lan Kwai Fong to party with a freedom that would be unimaginable in his hometown of Guizhou in Guangdong province.
Sam is not out to his relatives and the trips across the border are a chance to relax away from prying eyes.
“The reason I keep coming back to Hong Kong is because I feel more comfortable here – like I can finally live my real life,” he said. “Plus my friends and family on the mainland hardly visit, so I don’t have to be scared of being recognised.
“Maybe in future, when I have a job and can hopefully move to Hong Kong, I might come out to them.”
Sam feels lucky to be able to afford regular visits to Hong Kong and soak up the scene, unlike many of the gay friends he has made through online networks.
With an estimated 70 million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living on the mainland, Luke and his fellow travellers represent a lucrative market for popular tourism hotspots like Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong, according to the 2016 China LGBT Community Report.
This makes China the world’s third-biggest LGBT market after Europe and the United States, with an estimated spending power of more than US$300 billion per year according to the report, released jointly by non-profit business network WorkForLGBT in partnership with LGBT groups and companies across China.
Many mainland visitors regularly visit the gay pride parades in Hong Kong and Taipei each year and beyond economics, these trips play an important role in identity, observers say.
Séagh Kehoe a doctoral student at the University of Nottingham researching gender and sexuality issues in China, said that for many LGBT people in China, travelling to pink destinations could offer a welcome escape from the “ambiguity and insecurity” that so often characterised their lives.
Homosexuality was only declassified as a mental illness in China in 2001. And while acceptance of LGBT people is slowly growing among the younger generations and big firms eager to attract the pink dollar, Beijing is restricting the activities of grass-roots LGBT activists and censoring online media representations of homosexuality.
“The LGBT community in China experience elevated risks of depression and suicide – pressure from friends and family to marry and have children can be very difficult to deal with,” Kehoe said.
“There is also a lack of legal recognition and legal protections for LGBT people across the board.”
Even moving to the gay capitals of China, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, did not necessarily mean that LGBT people “can freely live out their sexual and gender identities without facing prejudice and discrimination”, Kehoe said.
“In most large Chinese cities there are LGBTQ+ communities to be found. But even within those spaces, there is still discrimination in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, disability and so on.”
Dr Michael Eason, a Hong Kong psychologist who offers LGBT-specific therapy, said it was “validating and empowering” for gay people to be somewhere that was visibly accepting of their sexuality and lifestyles.
“A lot of [LGBT people from the mainland] have to live a double life where they’re not able to be out to family, especially parents, because in China there’s such an emphasis on having children to carry on the family name,” said Eason, who has counselled LGBT clients from the mainland.
“Psychologically, it causes an extra layer of stress, having to live with this dual identity.”
Trips abroad offer other benefits: Chinese transgender people travel to Thailand for gender-affirming surgeries, while gay and bisexual men make trips to stock up on anti-HIV medication that is prohibitively expensive in China.
Since the strength of China’s pink economy has so far not led to increased political freedoms for LGBT Chinese, travelling to places where they can feel more accepted ultimately remains an option only for those who can afford it.
Among those who would like to travel more is queer feminist activist Li Maizi, who was part of the “Feminist Five” detained for 30 days in 2015. She lives in Beijing, but spent last summer working for a non-governmental organisation in Taiwan. She wants to go visit Taiwan more often but “simply cannot afford it”.
“I think gay men are more active in the Taiwan LGBT scene than lesbians. There is definitely a gender gap, since gay men tend to have more money to travel to Taiwan and Thailand, among other places,” she said.
But Luke from Beijing is not giving up on the Chinese capital.
“The gay scene in Beijing is pretty fun too, but of course you have to act more carefully when you’re out in public,” he said.
“My sexual orientation is only one part of my identity.
“Besides, the gay scenes in big mainland cities are slowly starting to become more and more like Bangkok and Taipei.”