China might not be everyone’s cup of tea but in a way, it’s a place all adventurous travelers should visit at some point in their lives. The world’s most populated country is a fast-developing, entrepreneurial place with cities growing at an unbelievable pace. Away from all the bustle, there are ancient sites like the Terracotta Warriors and the jaw-dropping Great Wall.
However, China is not known for its relaxed attitude on free speech or openness on LGBT issues; so gay travellers might wonder what their experience in China would be like. The legal and social situation is actually quite complex, but visitors to the country should feel safe to travel around freely, whether they are gay or straight.
Having awareness of the issues and the impact they could have on the type of holiday China can offer gay travellers is important. It’s worth noting that here when we refer to China, we mean the mainland, rather than Hong Kong or Macau, which are very different politically. We are also not talking about fabulously queer Taiwan and the gay scenes of Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung.
This guide aims to offer information on the situation for LGBT rights in China so that gay travelers are informed.
Homosexuality has been legal in China since 1997 and in 2001 it was – finally – no longer classified as a mental illness. However, to a certain extent progress stopped there and there are no anti-discrimination laws in place. Because of this, it is unclear to many LGBT people what their legal position is.
Same-sex marriage remains illegal and there is no recognition of same-sex couples. Marriage is officially defined as between a man and a woman and adopted children have to be adopted by heterosexual couples.
What complicates the legal status of LGBT rights in China further is how much LGBT rights are bound up with freedom of expression and censorship. Censorship laws, which as many know are particularly strict in China, are broadened to encompass LGBT-related content. This means that many organizations cannot publically promote themselves as being gay-friendly, which then limits the spaces for gay people.
The government’s general attitude has been described as one of “don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote” and there is no great legal opposition to LGBT rights in China; it’s just that there’s no active support of them either. This affects the social situation.
As one can imagine from a country as huge as China, it contains myriad views on and approaches to homosexuality. Aside from the usual discrepancy between rural and urban areas, there is also a large generation gap: a 2016 survey showed that 35% of people born pre-1970 would reject a gay child, while only 9% of people born after 1990 would do the same.
The hesitance to embrace gay rights in China is down to two quite different factors. The first is the traditional family values that still carry a lot of weight; sons are valued as the continuers of the family line and homosexuality is believed to run counter to that. This attitude is why many LGBT people will not come out to their families: in 2010 it was estimated that 80 to 90% of gay men in China were married to women.
The other factor is the limitations on public or cyberspaces for LGBT expression, tied into China’s overall limitations on freedom of expression. Because technically large gatherings without approval are illegal, gay pride events can be challenging to organize or shut down. Famously, China’s censorship of a televised Eurovision song contest entry lost the channel the rights to air the show at all. Restrictions like this mean that the LGBT community is not visible, which in turn makes it harder for gay people to gain acceptance.
Chinese social media network Weibo also came under fire in June 2018 for banning gay content in a measure taken presumably to show deference to the government, although online outrage caused an almost-instantaneous public turnaround on the campaign. This does show that there is a strong LGBT presence in China (there has to be, with that many people!), it just needs the space to grow.
While gender reassignment surgery is possible in China, since 2009 it has not been available to those under 20, the person cannot have a criminal record and must have family consent. As one can imagine, this last requirement is particularly challenging as there is not a wide understanding of trans people or issues.
To demonstrate this, you only need to look at the following statistics – only 2.2% of Chinese people say they know a trans person, but there are an estimated 4 million trans people in China. Lack of understanding means considerable discrimination still exists.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are actually a number of trans women in the public eye, including television presenters, opera stars and singers. While this cultural acceptance is good news, it does seem to be limited to attractive performers, feeding the idea that trans is a ‘performance’.
More widespread education will be needed in order to raise awareness and strengthen the legal and social position of trans people in China.
Certainly, gay travellers should feel completely comfortable to go to China and experience all the amazing things it has to offer. Homosexuality is not illegal and in all honesty, the government response is more disinterested than hostile. What is more important to consider, however, is what type of trip travelers are looking for.
With LGBT rights in China so hidden-away, it could be difficult to have a sociable trip, especially as online censorship can make gay networking sites and apps difficult to access. Gay travel agencies also struggle with an online presence. Similarly, it could be difficult to find out about others’ experiences and reviews referencing gay travels might be taken down.
As tourists, it is extremely unlikely that gay travellers would encounter any problems or hostility. People will be far more interested in their own lives!
Where would we even start with where to go in China? Visit the mega-cities like Beijing or Chengdu and experience the thrill of being surrounded by people, or escape to the natural regions like the Karst mountain area or Yangzhou. For lovers of history, there are plenty of ancient sites to wonder at.
Gay travellers can of course enjoy all these places and more. As with most countries, attitudes in the cities tend to be more liberal and visitors will find a more visible LGBT community in the urban areas. Shanghai is probably the most liberal of these, and certainly the one with the best gay party scene.
It’s certainly unlikely that gay travellers to China would struggle with accommodation. People are reserved and unlikely to express any surprise or discomfort even if they felt it, so the vast majority of accommodation options are welcoming for gay travellers.
Of course, the more international and high-end the hotel, the more likely it is that travellers can get up to all sorts with no one blinking an eye; but there are also guesthouses, sociable hostels and mid-range hotels galore. It can be nice knowing that the accommodation is more catered towards gay travellers, although this is difficult to find out given the restrictions on public statements of gay-friendliness, so recommendations from friends is the best bet.
Aside from the many incredible activities and experiences travellers to China can have, there are few specifically gay-focused activities. For partying then Shanghai or Beijing will be the best destinations – Shanghai’s Gay Triangle is full of unusual bars and clubs. The city is also host to ANGEL, the famous dance party.
For travellers who perhaps want to show their support for LGBT rights in China, it could be nice to try and take part in one of the country’s Pride events. Although there have been recent crackdowns on these gatherings, they do still take place and presence there is important to increasing the visibility of the LGBT community. But stay safe!
What will have become clear throughout this guide are the limitations on a thriving and visible gay scene in China, which can make it difficult to meet people. One of the great joys of travel is getting to know locals.
Despite internet censorship, there are gay dating apps which can be used to make connections. In fact, the world’s most-used dating app, Blued, was developed by an ex-policeman in China and Grindr is owned by a Chinese gaming company (we know, this is full of contradictions!).
The main thing for gay people considering a trip to China to think about is what type of holiday they are looking for. There are many wild adventures to be had in this astounding and contradictory country, but it is unlikely many of them will involve partying all night on a beach packed with hunky men.
For gay travellers, the most important thing is to be aware of the censorship laws and the effect these have on the LGBT community and its presence in China. However, they do not need to fear violence or hostility at all.
So be safe and enjoy!