In January of 2020, Fang Tianyu, an employee of a state-owned company in China, moved home to the city of Chengdu because of COVID-19. Fang’s family had made it a point not to speak about her love life since she came out as lesbian two years prior, but quarantine at home changed that. “Since being in quarantine, my dad has had very serious quarrels with me almost every day about my girlfriend or marriage,” she told the authors. As a result of these arguments, Fang broke up with her girlfriend to search for a male partner.
“If the pandemic had never happened and we hadn’t broken up, we would be celebrating our three year anniversary,” Fang said at the end of our interview.
During quarantine, many people have experienced increased familial tension. However, Fang’s story depicts the unique pressure that members of the LGBTQ+ community have faced in returning home. In an August study, researchers noted that depression rates among British LGBTQ+ people have skyrocketed during quarantine. Not only that, but one in six respondents experienced an increase in homophobia and transphobia. This number doubled if said respondents were closeted.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, but gay marriage remains illegal. The picture on trans and other queer rights is mixed. Censorship of LGBTQ+ themes in entertainment is common — but just last month an employee of an e-commerce firm successfully won a case against her employer who had discriminated against her on the basis of sex, specifically for being transgender. However, China is not a common law nation. Technically courts are not meant to interpret law and court precedent does not equal law, although the mechanics of this are vague. Because there are no clear protections against homophobia and transphobia in China’s employment protection legislation, the actual status of trans rights is still unclear, despite the court win.
A Fight for Basic Medical Rights
During COVID-19, existing problems have been compounded. The stigmatization of homosexuality in China has made it difficult for individuals living with HIV and AIDS to receive basic medical care.
A recent report in the Southern Urban Daily describes one such situation. Shan is a homosexual man living with AIDS who had managed to keep his diagnosis a secret from his family. When Shan returned home for quarantine, he only brought medicine sufficient for a one-week stay and soon realized it wouldn’t be enough. “Hopeless, helpless, and waiting for death,” he responded when asked by Southern Urban Daily reporters to describe his situation. “Every route out of the village was locked, and the only place I could try my luck was at the clinic in the rural marketplace.” As dire as his circumstance was, he was still reluctant to speak about his situation with local doctors. He worried that even if he did, they still might not understand what type of medication he needed.
In 2015, 82 percent of new HIV infections in adults age 18 to 24 occurred among what scientists call the “men having sex with men” (MSM) population. Statistics like this fuel the overwhelming social stigmatization of HIV as a “gay” disease. High new infection rates amongst the gay community combined with the perception that only gay people are affected by the disease make it difficult for people like Shan to be open about their diagnosis.
A Family Struggle
The first wave of COVID-19 in China coincided with the country’s largest annual holiday — the Lunar New Year — which added additional strain to an already precarious situation. Many young people returned home for the holidays and subsequently found themselves stranded away from urban centers when quarantine clamped down. This opened up many young people to be subjected to the tradition of xiangqin (相亲), in which parents arrange for their children to meet suitable marriage partners. Xiangqin creates a uniquely difficult pressure for LGBTQ+ youth, who must navigate either conforming to or resisting their parents’ expectation that they be in a heterosexual relationship.
“My parents were particularly harsh on [my boyfriend] when we moved into my family home together,” said Fan Changqi, who came out to his family two years ago. Fan has been with his partner Gaojie for several years, yet there is still deep-rooted tension between his partner and parents. His parents regard Gaojie as a thief who led their son in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, Gaojie, a university student from Chongqing, had to choose between moving in with Fan’s family or staying with his own parents, to whom he was still closeted. “My nerves were shot every time my parents knocked on my door for lunch because I knew it meant another round of persuasion into seeing a girl they liked,” Gaojie remembered with a shiver.
Gaojie and Fan’s experience highlights the issues queer couples face in trying to cohabitate in quarantine. Queer couples not out to their own families have trouble explaining a partner coming to live with them or even cohabiting separately. This physical separation placed a strain on relationships like that of 25-year-old programmer Kun Zhang. “I hate it when [my boyfriend] hinted that he might consider marrying a woman,” said Kun. “He had never had that thought before the lockdown.” The strain of a long-distance relationship eventually became too much, and Kun and his boyfriend broke up.
It’s Not All Bad: The Role of Tech
Although China’s LGBTQ+ community has been further disenfranchised by COVID-19, China’s “pink economy” continues to grow. In June 2020, BlueCity, the parent company of Blued — China’s most popular queer dating app — filed for an initial public offering in the United States. Blued now has over 6 million monthly active users, an 11 percent increase since last year.
Wang Weibang is one such user. “I began to use Blued to kill time during quarantine,” said the 22-year-old, whose university has been closed since January. “The app helped me connect with other gay men in this small town who are also barred from returning to school.” Founded by former police officer Ma Baoli, BlueCity earned $35 million in revenue during the second quarter of 2020, a 30 percent increase from the same quarter last year. It was a big jump for any company, but especially so during COVID-19.
BlueCity is the first queer-centric Chinese-owned IPO, and has served as a major milestone in China’s pink economy. It’s also just one example of how tech has connected and supported the LGBTQ+ community during quarantine. Openly gay influencers like Ergoo Zhang and Edison Fan have millions of followers on Weibo, Douyin and more. While popular before, their followings have grown exponentially over the last seven months.
While China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, it remains strongly stigmatized in public discourse. Empowered by its increasing user base, dating apps like Blued are a window through which Chinese netizens can better understand a 70-million strong community and reduce the stigma associated with being queer in China. Social media influencers and more open internet discussion serve as a support network for China’s burgeoning LGBTQ+ population.
Many call China’s approach to LGBTQ+ issues a zhongyong (中庸) or “middle of the road” stance, because while homosexuality is no longer criminalized, gay individuals are not legally protected from discrimination on the basis of sexuality. This creates a status quo in which exclusionary policies and social stigmas propagated by the conservative majority go unchallenged because there are no legal grounds for preventing discrimination.
The conditions of COVID-19 have made it clear that although certain facets of queer life are thriving in China, such as online dating and social media presence, there remain harmful sociocultural perceptions. The result is that LGBTQ+ individuals do not receive the same social treatment and, in some cases, medical care as their heterosexual counterparts. COVID-19 has highlighted the generational and rural-urban gaps that are the root cause of many of China’s modern issues, including those faced by the LGBTQ+ community during this time. Addressing the issues facing its LGBTQ+ citizens would be one step in bridging these social divides, which only continue to grow.
Lakshmi Iyengar is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University where she studies economics, health, and modern China. Prior she studied Biomedical Engineering at Yale. Follow her on Twitter @vlakshmiiyengar
Yu Songqi is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University where he studies International Relations. He currently works for the UNHCR on issues of refugee resettlement in China, and hails from Sichuan province.