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Chinese attitudes towards gay rights

WHEN Taiwan’s highest court ruled on May 24th that marriage should not be limited to a man and a woman and ordered parliament either to change the law or award marriage rights to gay couples within two years, the official media over the strait in China reacted with a barely stifled yawn. Just one state-owned, English-language newspaper took notice of a decision that would be the first to legalise gay marriage in an Asian country (not counting New Zealand). The more widely read Chinese version ignored it, as did television and other news outlets. Chinese history shows the country has long been relaxed about homosexuality. So why is China hostile, or at best indifferent, to gay rights now?

In poetry of the 9th century, usually held to be the golden age of Chinese literature, it is sometimes hard to tell whether a love poem is addressed to a woman or a man. In sharp contrast to Christianity and Islam, Chinese religious and social thinking does not harshly condemn same-sex relationships. Taoism regarded homosexual sex as neither good nor bad, while Confucianism, by encouraging close relations between master and pupils, is sometimes thought to have indirectly encouraged it. China’s greatest novel, “The Dream of the Red Chamber”, written in the late 18th century, includes both heterosexual and same-sex relations. Among literate elites, China does not seem to have shared the strong bias evident elsewhere. Moreover, homosexuality was legalised in China in 1997 (before that it could be prosecuted under a law banning hooliganism).

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But homosexuality was removed from the health ministry’s list of mental disorders only in 2001. Two reasons explain the lingering disdain. First, traditional filial values remain strong. In China, sons are considered vehicles for carrying on a family’s good name and reputation, and are supposed to marry and have sons of their own. This seems to have made families into a sort of bastion against homosexuality. In 2016 Peking University’s sociology department carried out the largest survey of attitudes to, and among, homosexuals and other sexual minorities on behalf of the UN Development Programme. It found that 58% of respondents (gay and straight) agreed with the statement that gays are rejected by their families—a higher level of rejection than occurs at work or school. Fewer than 15% of homosexuals said they had come out to their families, and more than half of those who did said they had experienced discrimination as a result. The second reason is that China is not a democracy. In most countries, gays and sexual minorities have had to establish their rights by holding meetings and marches, arguing their case in the media and through other forms of self-expression. China’s Communist Party does not like the public expression of rights of any kind and has squelched most discussion of gay concerns. It recently banned the depiction of homosexuals on television—not that there were many in the first place.

But Chinese attitudes are changing, paving the way for conflict with conservative laws. The Peking University survey revealed a big generation gap: 35% of those born before 1970 said they would reject a child who was gay; only 9% born after 1990 agreed. Though official media suppressed discussion of the ruling in Taiwan, Weibo, China’s Twitter, lit up with millions of reactions, most of them positive. Same-sex marriage could become a reality if China reverts to its earlier tolerance, and the party does not stand in the way. In an online debate about the ruling in Taiwan, Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that the average age of members of China’s National People’s Congress (the rubber-stamp parliament that would have to change marriage laws) is 49, at a time when the majority of people under the age of 35 approve of gay marriage. “Due to the influence of Taiwan, we’re 14 years away from legalising it,” she concluded.

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