Homosexuality is frowned upon in many societies world over. Research has shown that social stigma against gay persons is more pervasive in conservative societies (Higgins & Sun, 2007). China is no exception. An overwhelming majority of the members of the Chinese society value families and sons are expected to marry and have their sons to perpetuate a familys lineage. Indeed, many families consider gay children as abominable, and intolerance rates are highest in the rural areas (The Economist, 2017).However, recent evidence suggests that attitudes towards gay persons are changing, creating a conflict with conservative norms (Higgins & Sun, 2007; The Economist, 2017).This paper seeks to unearth how notions and thoughts towards homosexuality have changed in post-1980s China until today.
Even in liberal democracies, such as the United States, positive notions and thoughts about people identified as gay have taken time to take root in the American public. Such pattern of positivity towards homosexuality has also been witnessed over the last three decades in China, although the progress has been slow due to social, cultural, and political factors (Higgins & Sun, 2007). In the early 1990s, the word homosexuality (referring to female or male) did not exist in the laws or the media in China. This lack of lexicon in the media and the laws traced its roots to the 1949 founding of the Peoples Republic of China which launched a crackdown on the practice of homosexuality despite the historical evidence suggesting that homosexuality had been existence in the Chinese society for centuries(Higgins & Sun, 2007; He and Jolly, 2002).
In spite of pervasive social prejudice at the time, activists campaigning for recognition of gay life in China began in the early 1990s (He and Jolly, 2002).In this period, homosexuality was illegal. Any activity about gay rights was not done openly for fear of prosecution. Ho (2008) Sun, 2007and He and Jolly (2002) indicate that activism was conducted either in social places or disguised a health outreach programs for people with mental problems. For instance, He and Jolly (2002) report that homosexual discussions between gay persons and health professionals were done in places such as factories in the name of mental health research programs. During the discussions, social workers and health professionals exhibited sympathy as well as showed little recognition of the sexual orientation of gay persons. At the time, gay individuals were regarded as having mental illnesses that could be cured through medical intervention. Despite these challenges, these initiatives marked an important chapter for gay people as it ushered in robust pro-homosexuality activities years later.
By the mid-1990s, activism for recognition of the existence of gay persons in the Peoples Republic of China had gained some momentum, and more people were coming to state their sexual orientation without fear of retribution from authorities and society (Ho, 2008; He & Jolly, 2002).However, gay persons who openly declared their sexual orientation experienced social stigma and prejudice from society in general and also from the authorities. For instance, gay individuals continued to be prosecuted under the law that described homosexuality as hooliganism and perversion (The Economist, 2017).This persecution did not deter activism and more expressions for recognition of gay people in China.
The media in China during the mid-1990s did not give much attention to gay activism. Stated in another way, it was part of the broader society that did not see the need and urgency to give gay issues public attention. However, in 1997, China passed a law that decriminalized homosexuality. The decriminalization of homosexuality did not stop prejudice, harassment and societal stigma against gay people (The Economist, 2017). For instance, government agencies continued to arrest and prosecute gay individuals on flimsy grounds. As a result, many of the gay activists were incarcerated. Additionally, the healthcare system also continued to promote the narrative that homosexuality is a mental health problem that can be corrected through medical interventions (Ho, 2008).
Prejudice from the medical profession has been cited as one of the most challenging factors for the gay people in the 1990s. Family rejection and discrimination in the society exposed gay people to some psychological problems. Depression is a common disorder that is associated with persons that have identified themselves as gay (He and Jolly, 2002).Although the medical profession began to recognize that gay lifestyles are part of the Chinese society, leaders in the profession remained adamant that it is a mental problem which can be treated through medical means. However, at the turn of the century, societal attitudes began to change in favor of the rights of the gay community in China as more young people flocked the cities (Chi & Hawk, 2016).
Perhaps the most promising period for gay individuals in China came at the turn of the century, In particular, in 2001, the ministry of removed the classification of gays as people with mental illness. In other words, homosexual persons could no longer be listed as persons with health conditions that can be reversed (The Economist, 2017). This revision of the classification somewhat reduced discrimination from medical professionals as well as created positive awareness among other members of the society which, in turn, played a significant role in reshaping the notions of people in the Chinese society regarding the preparation of the marriage(Speelman, 2013).
As pointed in the previous paragraph, the revision of attitudes homosexuality has increased positively for the last fifteen years. The Chinese society is changing very rapidly. Globalization has made people exchange culture across long distances within a short period. As the Chinese society transitions from the socialist economy to a free society, the Chinese people are more likely to be presented with more choices. Attitudes of people became developed as they are perceived in the western sense. In contrast, the ubiquity of mass media communication platforms has seen young people grow up with the freedom-for choice thereby showing little regard to conservative views that shape anti-gay sentiments (Higgins & Sun, 2007). Indeed, research conducted in the recent years shows that more young people are supporting gay rights compared to their older counterparts. In a study conducted on university students attitudes towards homosexuality found that attitudes of young people gravitate towards choice and freedom as espoused in the West (The Economist, 2017). The study conducted by Chi and Hawk(2016) also find that there has been an increase in the percentage of people with positive attitudes towards gay rights from 17% in 2007 to 21% in 2013, a clear indication that the number is increasing as the world becomes more globalized.
Rapid economic expansion of China has contributed to the emergencies of big cities. One characteristic of young people is the movement to big cities, and this had broken the extended family set-ups. In extended family set-ups, members tend to develop conservative views about homosexuality whereas those that stay in towns and come from professional parents tend to be liberal about homosexuality (Higgins & Sun, 2007). The implication for this is that as more young people move to live in the cities, the higher the likelihood of a positive attitude towards gay people. In the same vein, the older the people are, the more they are likely tend to detest homosexuality and vice versa. One research found that only 9% persons born after 1990 failed to support to gay rights whereas those that were born before 1970 responded that they would reject a child who is gay(the Economist, 2017).These findings show that the younger generation holds the key to the rights and freedoms of gay individuals in China.
In summation, significant progress has been made regarding the rights of gays in China. Unlike in the early 1990s, talking about homosexuality is no longer abominable majority of Chinese citizens. This progress has been made due to landmark decisions such as the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1997 and the removal of gay persons from the mentally ill patient's list in 2001. Through petitions, protests, and other methods, the tolerance of the government to people who identify themselves as gay has increased significantly. More people are now aware of homosexuality in China. From the discussion, it evident young people are the drivers of change regarding the rights and freedoms of the gay community. However, a lot needs to be done because there appears to be lack of political will among the political elite accord gay people equal rights as those of straight people.
Chi, X., & Hawk, S. T. (2016). Attitudes toward same-sex attraction and behavior among Chinese university students: Tendencies, correlates, and gender differences. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01592
The Economist. (2017, June 6). Chinese attitudes towards gay rights. The Economist.
He, X., & Jolly, S. (2002). Chinese women tongzhi organizing in the 1990s. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 3(3), 479-491. doi:10.1080/1464937022000037589
Higgins, L. T., & Sun, C. (2007). Gender, social background and sexual attitudes among Chinese students. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 9(1), 31-42. doi:10.1080/13691050600963914
Ho, L. W. (2008). Speaking of same-sex subjects in China. Asian Studies Review, 32(4), 491-509. doi:10.1080/10357820802492586
Speelman, T. (2016, August 21). Tiptoeing out of the closet: The history and future of LGBT rights in China. The Atlantic.
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