The Actual Truth About Being Gay in China as a Foreigner
So what’s it really like to be Gay in China as a foreigner? How do you even say LBGT in Chinese?
Before learning about Narelle’s story about being Gay in China let’s learn some key vocab:
- Gay – Tóng xìng liàn 同性恋 – literally ‘same-sex love’
- Lesbian – Nǚ tóng xìng liàn女同性恋 – literally “female-same-sex-love”
- Queer – Ku’er 酷儿
- It’s worth noting Gay’s in China much prefer this term than the aforementioned two. In the LGBT community in China, this is used far more
- To come out of the closet – Chū guì出柜 (literally to come out of a closet)
Narelle’s Story – Being Gay in China
- Gay in China as a Foreigner – What To Expect
- Gay in China as a Foreigner – Starting a Family
- Gay in China as a Foreigner – Difficulties
Thanks to former LTL Employee Narelle for providing this fantastic account on what it’s like to be Gay in China.
When I first came to Beijing I was a little nervous.
I’d done the research and it all seemed to suggest that, although gay unions weren’t recognised in China, I’d have no problems living as a gay woman. It definitely wasn’t illegal and most people had a ‘if it’s not my business, I don’t care’ attitude.
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There wasn’t a wealth of information online though and didn’t seem to be a ‘scene’, not like I’d been used to in London and Barcelona.
However, having just got married, I was okay with the idea of less gay bars and clubs and more nights snuggled in front on the TV with my wife.
I’d also read that due to expectations of family, many gay members of Chinese society kept their sexuality hidden, which made me wonder, should me and my wife keep our ‘gayness’ somewhat quiet too?
What to expect – Being Gay in China
It’s not been like I expected.
There have been some awkward moments but not because people are mean or homophobic, just because they don’t understand.
I tell people I’m married, I wear a ring so it’s not something I can hide, nor would I want to.
When I first arrived in China I decided to study Chinese in Beijing. My teacher often asked me about ‘ni de airen’ (my partner).
She of course assumed that I was married to a man but wouldn’t know from ‘airen’. It was fine until one time, when in front of my class, she asked, ‘ni de zhangfu gongzuo zai nar?’. This translates to “where is your husband?”…
At the time I didn’t correct her, just answered, ‘Wo de airen shi laoshi’ (my partner is a teacher), but the ‘zhangfu’ questions continued.
Soon my classmates became aware of my situation and then word spread that I was gay and married to a woman.
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A week or so later, the teacher came to me and said sorry, she thought I was married to a man. She genuinely didn’t know women could be married and had lots of questions.
She wasn’t full of hate but was fascinated. That has been the general reception.
The fact I am gay has either been ignored in a kind of ‘so what?’ way or has been greeted with fascination. I’ve had two ayi’s (Chinese aunties who look after your home) during my time here and the latter, I have grown very close to.
I can be affectionate towards my wife when she is around.
I’m just talking about the normal stuff, like a peck before she goes to work, but my ayi doesn’t flinch and I feel completely comfortable which is really nice.
Starting a Family in China
The real challenge to the levels of understanding and acceptance came when my wife and I decided to start a family.
We’d gotten used to being able to walk down the road and hold hands in China.
No-one cared. In fact, many straight male friends and girl friends walk holding hands and many straight Chinese men are very camp and walk around with sparkly tops and bags.
I’d also seen many gay couples too, both male and female, but I was yet to see a gay couple with children or a ‘rainbow family’ as we like to call them.
My wife fell pregnant first and if people were shocked when they found it, they hid it well. I was expecting some awkward questions to come, like ‘how is that possible?’ or ‘where is the baby’s father?’ but nobody asked them.
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This may be because most of the Chinese people I work with are at least somewhat westernised or it may be due to Chinese culture and not wanting to lose face or cause me any embarrassment.
We went to an international doctors too, so there was no problem there. My eldest son Ezra was born in the UK where myself and my wife stayed for a couple of months before flying back to China.
We decided to start for a second baby straight away, knowing it can take a long time to get pregnant by insemination. It turns out I’m extremely fertile and our second son Byron was born in Beijing just 11 months after Ezra.
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Difficulties Starting to Surface
This is where life became slightly more difficult. It’s not that anybody had a problem with our sons or was disgusted with us for choosing to have a family, everybody was really wonderful.
The issue was with bureaucracy. In China, people asked ‘who is the mum?’ and it doesn’t always feel acceptable to answer ‘we both are’, especially when there are police or officials or Chinese doctors involved.
Firstly, my wife wasn’t able to be on the birth certificate.
This was a bitter pill to swallow. We are both on my eldest son’s birth certificate as he was born in the UK.
The team of Chinese doctors we had at the hospital were also slightly more confused at the situation then the western doctors we had at the international clinic but we understood this, it was a cultural thing.
The real annoyance came with applying for a visa for Byron. It had been difficult enough applying for Ezra’s in the UK but it was even more difficult in China.
In order to leave China to move back to the UK, Byron would need a visa. However, in order to have a visa he needed permission from both parents and they didn’t view my wife as a parent.
They didn’t understand why there wasn’t a father listed on the birth certificate and I was told, ‘everyone has a father’.
Explaining what a sperm bank was to the Chinese police was extremely uncomfortable and being told that without permission from the father, Byron wouldn’t be issued a visa and therefore, be able to leave the country, left me in tears.
Eventually, they decided that letters from both the fertility clinic we used in Denmark and from the sperm bank in the US would be sufficient and a visa was granted!
It was very hard work but it was a situation that was ultimately solvable and by far the most difficult situation we faced here due to our sexuality.
China is full of ups and downs, of difficult situations and of incredible experiences.
No matter what complication arises, everything is ultimately solvable and there is no reason big enough to not come here and take in everything this amazing culture has to offer.
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Being gay in China isn’t a big deal as a foreigner.
The biggest difficulties by far are bureaucratic, so if you’re planning on getting married to your partner or having a child as a gay couple in China, it could be hard work.
And yes, as a Chinese person, you may face restrictions based upon family expectations but from what I understand, things are slowly improving.
Your sexuality doesn’t seem to define you in China, in some ways it defines you less that in western countries.
There is more and more of a gay scene here with bars like Adams popping up in areas especially popular with foreigners.
There is also a LGBT group in Beijing that has both foreign and Chinese members and Shanghai even has a gay pride parade every year.
There is a large underground gay scene in Beijing, especially for men, but there are also some gay nightclubs and you will see gay couples walking around the streets holding hands.
I’ve never felt unsafe as a gay woman in China and I can’t even say that about the UK.
If you’re looking for a city with a very large gay nightlife then maybe Beijing isn’t the place for you. If you’re wanting to come to Beijing to explore the many beautiful sites or to study Chinese but you’re worried being gay will be a problem, don’t be.
My name’s Narelle McGregor and I worked at LTL. I’m a happily married lesbian from the UK who has been blessed with two gorgeous sons.
I like cooking, watching football (HUGE West Ham United fan), reading and of course sharing my experiences of my life in China.
LGBT in Chinese – More Vocabulary
Being Gay in China – FAQ’s
How do you say “Gay” in Chinese?
Gay in Chinese is Tóng xìng liàn 同性恋 which is literally ‘same-sex love’.
How do you say “Lesbian” in Chinese?
Lesbian in Chinese is Nǚ tóng xìng liàn女同性恋 which is literally “female-same-sex-love”.
How do you say “come out of the closet” in Chinese?
To come out of the closet in Chinese is Chū guì 出柜 which is literally to come out of a closet, the same as in English!
How do you say “Heterosexuality” in Chinese?
异性恋 Yìxìng liàn
How do you say “Transgender” in Chinese?
变性人 Biànxìng rén which is literally “change sex person”.
How do you say “Bisexuality” in Chinese?
双性恋 Shuāng xìng liàn
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