Homosexuality in Question: Mapping Homosexual Desire in China

The Second Nutongzhi (Lesbian and Bisexual Women) Conference, held from June 25-28
in Beijing, focused on building lesbian networks in China and on providing women from all
over China with opportunities to share their perspectives and experiences. But that sounds
easier than it turned out to be in practice. Disclosing individual life experiences was more or less
comfortable a project, depending on women’s generational and geographical locations. Moreover,
the more women spoke, the more it became clear that they don’t share any common, stable
definition of homosexuality itself. In official quarters alone, diverse discourses of homosexuality have
existed in China’s different historical periods, from the earliest term for homosexuality, “tongxinglian”
(a filthy habit), to a Communist-era description of homosexuality as a bourgeois behavior, and, now,
to its “medical” classification as a mental disorder.
The emerging lesbian community in China regards homosexual desire as individual, essential,
and political. However, the lesbian community is primarily confined to the middle-class and tends to
exclude people from rural places, where up-to-date information on homosexuality seldom reaches.
Rural people, then, typically follow dominant discourse and see homosexuality as a perversion that
needs to be cured, while their urban counterparts, able to access alternative discourses since the
1980s, tend to think of their sexual preference as essentially different from heterosexuality.
The conference, which brought together more than 50 women from around China, was hosted
by Beijing Sisters. The group functions as an underground organization because topics relating to
homosexuality are still under state censorship and because until 1998 homosexual behavior remained
classified as a crime of “hooliganism.” Punishment ranged from nothing to 15 days in prison, though
male homosexual love is common in Chinese literature going back centuries, and male prostitution
has been a custom in Chinese history. Beijing Sisters’ principle activities include sponsoring social
events, coordinating telephone hotlines, holding discussion groups about gay and lesbian issues, and
publishing newsletters. Since freedom of speech in China is limited, the dissemination of information
about conferences is mainly achieved through the use of existing mailing lists and the Internet.
Indeed, cyberspace has become a safe haven for urban and well-educated lesbians to identify
themselves, make friends, share information, and plan social events independently from state
censorship of media and public space.
I came away struck by the complex, multiple, and very local ways dominant discourses of
homosexuality in different historical moments operate in people’s daily lives. Ordinary people choose
certain categories and interests in discourses and neglect others depending on where they stand,
geographically and historically. Therefore, there is no single reality of or reference to homosexuality in
China, but diverse and multiple realities of homosexuality achieved through complex interactions
between subjects’ interpretations and the interweaving discourses of globalization, Western medicine,
the Western gay rights movements, and local understandings.

Ching-ning Wang, a PhD
student in the Graduate
Center’s Sociology
Program, was last year’s
winner of CLAGS’s
Student Travel Grant,
which helps a CUNY
graduate student attend a
conference to present
research on LGTBQ
issues. CLAGS asked her
to report on the
conference she attended in