With its uncompromising image, the People’s Liberation Army of China may seem an unlikely employer of choice for the country’s gay community.

But it could be argued that the Chinese army is a less uncomfortable environment for gay people than Chinese society at large. That might sound surprising, since the country as a whole is not noted for its tolerance towards the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community.

Chinese police detain gay people who gather in public places and the government shuts down unsanctioned gay-focused publications or television shows. In the past, Chinese society has found homosexuality generally incompatible with the values of mainstream culture and in the 20th and 21st centuries the country lagged the West in moving towards equal legal status for its homosexual citizens.

But there are some reasons to believe attitudes are changing, albeit slowly, not least among them China’s decision in March to release an uncensored version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, when in much of the rest of Asia conservative groups were fretting about a gay scene in the film.

It’s also worth noting that China’s treatment of homosexuality differs from the West in that it is a passive intolerance, rather than an active one.

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Barring some notable exceptions, China has tended not to encourage violence against homosexuals nor to force them to “mend their ways”. Neither has it tended to imprison people purely for being gay, even though homosexuality was illegal until 1997. This is very different to attitudes in the US and Britain, where until recently gay people were actively oppressed.

However, Chinese cultural mores and behavioural norms tend to be more uniform than in Western societies, and while this is beneficial for unity, it can result in a difficulty for anyone finding themselves in a minority of any kind.

The psychological burden on members of the LGBT community can be very heavy, even when there is no malicious discrimination aimed at them, because society’s assumption of conformity is so strong that any sense of divergence can lead to despair.

DIFFERENT SET OF RULES

The Chinese armed forces, however, provide a rather different society and therefore a different set of rules for gay people who find themselves within it.

Unlike the armed forces of countries such as the United States or Britain, which prize aggression and initiative, the Chinese armed forces have until recently placed great emphasis on self-sacrifice and indifference to death, as well as nurturing political awareness.

Its leadership has recently shifted focus to what would be more easily recognisable in the West as martial excellence, and in doing so has decreased the size of the People’s Liberation Army while increasing expenditure. But its core values of unselfishness – indeed selflessness – remain.

The PLA is hardly a happy haven for gay men, but it does provide a more tolerant micro-environment than the larger Chinese society.

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Pressures of the outside world are absent – there are no family members demanding offspring, and no marriages that crush sexuality, disappoint spouses, and lead to dishonesty and guilt.

Nor are there doctors who try to treat homosexuality with emetics or electroshocks, pseudo-psychiatrists offering conversion therapy, or spiritual masters offering a sexless enlightenment. All these are common treatments, albeit voluntary, for modern Chinese who are gay.

The army’s attitude to homosexuality is officially one of denial. Most senior officers deny that it exists, or say that if it exists, it is extremely rare and not something they have ever observed.

One colonel in an artillery regiment said: “In China, homosexuality is not possible in the army, unlike in the West. The conditions of the army are very hard and gay people would not be able to accept that. Maybe it is possible that someone is gay, but it would not be possible to be [openly gay].”

It is also fair to say that very few, if any, senior officers are “out”. But this is hardly surprising: unthinking prejudice against gays is rife among the heterosexual majority.

Yet the PLA lacks that basic assumption of Western military homophobia: that the esprit de corps, which is of vital importance in any army unit, would be harmed by any perceived deviation from the norm.

Since Chinese society already values conformity, its armed forces do not need to place such emphasis on instilling the attributes of conformity, such as discipline, hierarchy, teamwork and so on. These are behavioural norms already and do not need to be forced on people.

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There are at present, 26 countries which allow gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces and around 10 more countries that don’t outwardly prohibit them from serving.

In China the position is less clear, but internet chat-rooms, WeChat and other social networks have allowed gay soldiers to find and support each other.

One junior ranking soldier commented: “The internet has saved us.” He described how an aim of any gay recruit was to find a “big soldier brother” to look after him during his period of service. Since protector relationships are common among heterosexual soldiers, no suspicion is aroused when a sergeant has a particular favourite among the rank and file, or an officer of field rank takes a junior lieutenant under his wing.

A junior officer in the navy said that although he had been bullied when he was a new recruit, this had not been related to his sexual orientation.

Three years later, he was not being bullied, and he said he did not even know whether his heterosexual comrades were aware of, or cared about, his sexuality.

China may be a long way from granting the LGBT community the same rights as heterosexual citizens, but a look at how gay people are treated in the PLA suggests that there is a certain type of tolerance that, at least until recently, was uncommon in Western armies.

Nicolas Groffman writes on China, practised law in Beijing and Shanghai, and is currently a partner at law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys