Slowly but surely homosexuals are asserting their place in Chinese society, but just how difficult is to be gay in a city like Dongguan?
Photos of muscular male models in tight pants line the walls, a disco ball whirls to the sounds of bad Cantopop, and table upon table of young men, arm-in-arm, throw dice, and down beer on Friday night at NOW Bar, Dongguan’s longest-standing gay bar. Here, men are at ease and can be themselves: open displays of affection, completely natural. NOW Bar provide a space for gay Dongguaners to be free, a cavern to support them from the pressures of the outside world.
For a country that classified homosexuality as a mental illness as recently as 2001, China’s LGBT scene has come a long way, and the love that dare not speak its name is beginning to find a voice. Uncloseted gay men appear on TV, the nation has its own transgender celebrity, and the Confucian ideal that everyone must pursue heterosexual marriage and bear children (or rather, child) at the earliest available opportunity is being challenged, albeit slowly. Such changes are evident in Dongguan, which has it is own small, discrete, but thriving gay scene.
Going to the gay bar
Jack, 35, from Hubei brings a bucket brimming with Budweiser to our table at NOW, the bar he opened six years ago. Initially it wasn’t about business, just a place he started for his gay friends to relax and unwind, but it has become successful. Perhaps to the surprise of some, Jack has never had any issues with the local authorities. “As long as I have all the right permits, it is no problem. I told them it was a gay bar before I started but it was never an issue,” he says. And why should it be? Being gay is not illegal in China, after all. Nevertheless, Jack likes to keep things in order and to ensure he doesn’t have problems. During the, now infamous, crackdown on prostitution in Dongguan in the spring of 2014, he quickly went to visit with the local government to see if they had any problems with his bar. They couldn’t have been clearer, “They just told me it wasn’t an issue. That they were closing down illegal prostitution, and I had nothing to do with that,” he says. Despite the longevity of his bar, which once hosted a gay engagement party that was widely reported in the national media, Jack does not want to be a pioneer of any sort. “I am gay, but I am very traditional. I just want to get on with managing the bar. I don’t want it to be famous.”
Inside NOW Bar sits Danny, a 26 year old salesman from Jiangxi, who has lived in Dongguan since 2009. He has looks that can only be described as teddy-bearish, and is unashamedly gay if not flamboyantly so. Glancing around the room, he looks unimpressed by what NOW Bar has to offer. “I used to go to the gay bars in Dongguan a lot, but not much these days. If I want to meet guys now, I can just use one of the apps,” he says. Whipping out his phone, he shows me Blued, China’s answer to Grindr, where dates with like-minded men can be arranged at the gentle tap of a screen. Blued is just one of many gay apps in China: another’s called Zank, another Jackd. Peering at Danny’s phone, you can see hundreds upon hundreds of snapshots of local men in the area. The photographs are varied, inhabiting many genres: men in uniform, topless men, cuddly-toy holding men, there’s even a man swimming with dolphins. And these are just the guys in Dongguan.
Amidst the digital sanctity of Blued and other Chinese gay-dating apps, it is very clear what these men are about. But outside in the mad, bad, real world, it is a different tale. Being ‘out’ in China is all a question of degrees. For some it is just good friends that know, others maybe tell their colleagues, but with filial piety being what it is in China, telling parents is usually the most tricky hurdle. Homosexuality is not something a lot of the older Chinese generation chooses to be comfortable with, and it is estimated that over 90 percent of Chinese homosexuals simply don’t bother telling their family at all.
Being ‘out’ in China is all a question of degrees. For some it is just good friends that know, others maybe tell their colleagues, but with filial piety being what it is in China, telling parents is usually the most tricky hurdle.
Danny’s parents don’t know, but he thinks they may have inkling, but just prefer to choose to ignore it, like it doesn’t exist. “When I was younger my father found some pretty gay stuff on my phone. After, he kept asking how it was possible for a man to make love to another man. He doesn’t understand it. But it is very possible, isn’t it?” he chuckles. On being asked whether his mother is in the same state of denial, he explains that she has her own theory on homosexuality, “She is a Buddhist,” he says, “to her being gay means that you were a woman in a past life and you have just carried that femininity over into the next life, but not the body. I guess it is her way of understanding it, but she wouldn’t like it if she knew what I was.”
If his parents’ refusal to accept who he is upsets Danny, he doesn’t show it.
He wears being gay lightly, and seems completely carefree. “What can I do?” he asks, “I once told a good friend I was gay and she didn’t believe me. She said, ‘it’s not true, it’s not true, how can it be?’ I told her, ‘I’m telling you aren’t I, believe what you want to believe.’” Instead of worrying, Danny prefers to joke about it all, and tells a funny, though at the same time slightly sad, story about a time he went back to a married man’s home, only for the wife to come back and catch them. “She started screaming ‘I knew it, I knew it’ at her husband.’ If she knew, then why was she still with him then?” Danny says, rolling his eyes. Wishing to avoid making the scene worse, Danny rushed his clothes back on, and fled. He never heard from the man again.
If Danny is supremely comfortable with his sexuality, this is not the case for Jimmy, 28, a credit card salesman from Guangxi, who has lived in Dongguan for seven years. He is nervous, highly introverted and his interview with HERE! seems to leave him a little spooked. Though he has always known he was gay, he has always tried to hide it from virtually everybody he knows, and control his feelings. He wasn’t intimate with a man until just last year, aged of 27. In the past he has had girlfriends, but on being pressed, he denies that they were sham relationships. “I loved my last girlfriend, “ he says, “it was a good relationship.” It initially appears that Jimmy is just convincing himself, or perhaps that he is not even gay, but as many psychologists claim, simply on a spectrum of sexuality. Could it be that he is not as gay as he thinks? He is quick to clarify the matter, saying, “Look, physically I can be completely satisfied with a woman. It is no problem. But there will always be something not right about it mentally for me. But I will still get married.”
Thinking it will be difficult to fit in, and desperately not wanting to upset his parents who want him to have a child, Jimmy is simply embracing the mindset that leads so many gay men in the country to end up marrying women, and not tell them of their true sexuality. There are an estimated 16 million tongqi (homowives) in China. These women didn’t know their husbands were gay when they married and most are destined to live in either completely or partially loveless marriages. Many of the tongqi that find out their husbands are gay, go on to be unlikely advocates for gay rights in China. Jimmy is unsure if he will tell his future wife about his inner desires. “I don’t know it depends. If she can be accepting I will tell her. If not, then I won’t say anything.”
Life in the lesbian lane
It is not just gay men that struggle with their sexual identity in Dongguan; lesbians have their own set of problems too. In what seems a remarkable quirk of fate, directly underneath NOW Bar lays V-GO, Dongguan’s only dedicated lesbian bar. It seems a stretch that NOW and V-GO arrived in the same building by chance, but the bars’ respective owners insist this is the case. V-GO is quieter than its big brother upstairs. Red-blooded males, who might be titillated at the prospect of visiting the bar, could well leave disappointed. The bar is chiefly patronized by petite, yet masculine lesbians, T’s (in China, masculine lesbians are referred to as ‘T-s’, a diminutive of tomboy, the feminine as ‘P-s’). In fact, at first glance it looks like the bar is primarily peopled by spectacled teenage boys.
Seven, 30, from Shanxi, has lived in Dongguan for ten years, and is one such tomboy. She has the most beautiful feminine eyes, but her short cropped hair, trousers and shirts, make her look more like a girlish boy, and her outward appearance has caused her difficulties in the city. Finding employment is troublesome for her, “People don’t want to employ me a lot of the time. In China a woman is supposed to have very feminine qualities. They don’t want to employ somebody like me. It is discrimination,” she says. It is as much women as men that judges her, and treat her badly. “Sometimes when I go into a public toilet, the other women scream at me and make a big deal. They assume I am a man. It’s annoying. Where should I go?” On top of this as she is usually the masculine person in a relationship, and as such she is expected to fulfill traditional male roles. “If I have a girlfriend, I am still the one who is expected to buy a house and a car.” It is a somewhat contradictory bind: despite having to deal with pressures from an often hostile society, China’s gay community can often be extremely traditional in their outlook. “It is confusing I guess,” she says, “a lot of my ex-girlfriends left their boyfriends to be with me. I guess they liked my personality.”
Here, Men Are At Ease And Can Be Themselves: Open Displays Of Affection, Completely Natural. Now Bar Provides A Space For Gay Dongguaners To Be Free, A Cavern To Support Them From The Pressures Of The Outside World.
Just how difficult it is to be gay in Dongguan is something that is difficult to pin down as there are a myriad of experiences, each unique. Masculine lesbians generally seem to have a difficult time of it. But many of the men often report having no issues, instead being able to seamlessly blend into society without having too much difficulty. Leo Lewis, 32, is an English teacher and Dongguan native, and other than the usual family pressure, he says being gay in Dongguan is no problem at all, albeit a little dull at times. “In a very small town maybe it is difficult to be gay, but Dongguan is easy. I can just be myself. I don’t like girls in that way, and that is it. I have a few old guy friends that I don’t tell. They would probably ask me if I fancy them, which I don’t.”
Leo used to work as a volunteer for an ad-hoc gay support group in the city, the Dongguan Rainbow Workshop. It was an informal group, with no website, and little financial support, but it served its purpose, with Lewis mainly advising young men on the importance of safe sex. “A lot of them just didn’t know about it, so I would meet them and give advice,” he says. Adding, “I stopped working with them in the end. Some people in the group were using it as a way to just have fun, and meet guys, but for me it was serious.”
For Leo the gay scene in Dongguan is not developed enough, and if he wants to go clubbing, for example, he prefers Shenzhen or Guangzhou, “In Dongguan it is all the same. For gay clubs I go to Shenzhen or Hong Kong. Here it is always the same guys, playing the same terrible music. I went to one and put on my own music for an hour. People loved it. The guys could feel the rhythm. They were dancing,” he says. Adding, “Gay life in Dongguan is boring. There is a gay badminton group, but I don’t go. I prefer to watch the male diving. When, I watch that, wow!” He takes out his smart phone to show a video. It is of a gay club in Guangzhou. Two large muscle men on a stage, each hosing the other down with water, dancing wildly as Chinese men cheer. “Handsome guys, right?” he says.
To meet other men, he also uses the apps that are so ubiquitous amongst the community, but he doesn’t have much luck when it comes to finding anything in the way of a serious relationship, “I don’t think people use them for long term relationships. Plus the guys on the apps are like 16 or 17, they call me uncle. What can I do with them?” Though, he does not seem particularly interested in anything long term “I get a lot of pressure from my family to get married, a lot!” Unlike Jimmy, Leo would not consider marrying a women “I would never marry someone just to make my family happy. I don’t want to tell lies. Why should I make them happy by being a liar? I am not really into relationships anyway. I just let things flow,” he says. Adding, “I can’t see myself getting married to be honest. It is not my style. Being single is fine. I didn’t really have my first boyfriend till 21 or 22.”
“In a very small town maybe it is difficult to be gay, but Dongguan is easy. I can just be myself. I don’t like girls in that way, and that is it.”
A simple way for China to make things less difficult for gay men, would be for them to join the tide of nations that are legalizing gay marriage, it seems unlikely but perhaps possible in ten or twenty years time. Somewhat surprisingly, Leo does not particularly support this. “I don’t think gay marriage is such a good thing. It is meaningless. Even for a straight couple, what is the point? It is just a show, a piece of paper. It doesn’t really matter,” he says. Taking a long sip of beer, he pauses deep in thought, as if thinking it through. “ Actually, I don’t know why China doesn’t do it. Before 1949 it was [homosexuality] more acceptable. Even some of the emperors were a bit gay. They were always finding boys for a bit of fun. We were one of the most open societies, but now we are one of the most closed.”
Though by no means an activist, certain things anger him, “I don’t know why we have such a reputation for being promiscuous. Why are we attacked? Do you see all of the prostitutes that there used to be in Dongguan, lots and lots. Straight people, married people were going to them. How are we the ones that are promiscuous?”
While Seven and her lesbian friends, Bear and Raincoat, all reported difficulty in finding jobs, for Lewis the world of work is easy and he has a small classroom where he teaches his students. “The gay thing is not a problem, for teaching the bigger issue is that I am not white, not that I am gay. In the work place it is fine. People don’t mind. Maybe if you work for the government maybe it is a small problem; I used to work in China Mobile in Dongguan. It was no problem. Nobody cares.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities.
Dongguan Gay Bars
NOW Bar: 3/F, Shop A39, Dongcheng Walking Street, Dongcheng 东城雍华庭枫情步行街A39铺三楼
V-GO: 2/F, Shop A39, Dongcheng Walking Street, Dongcheng 东城雍华庭枫情步行街A39铺三楼
Jun Du Bar: Guangtai Rd, opposite the Huangdu Hotel, Nancheng 东莞南城莞太路皇都酒店旁