HKU Bulletin June 2011 (Vol. 12 No. 2)

What does it mean to be a gay Chinese man? Dr Travis S.K. Kong, Assistant Professor of Sociology, who has interviewed gay men in London, Hong Kong and China and studied the issue since the 1990s, says it all depends on where you are. Gay Chinese men in London are often regarded by their white Western counterparts as adolescent, asexual, or effeminate 'Madame Butterfly' types, so their identity as gay men gets mixed up with race issues, he says. Gay men in Hong Kong tend to be defined along economic lines - how much money they have, what clothes they wear, the languages they speak and their social class. They tend to express their gayness through their consumption habits, and their identity is complicated by a lack of space in which they are often confined by a family setting that makes it difficult to come out. Gay men in China are caught in a tangle of pressures, from traditional values that demand they marry and have children, to inconsistent government policy that encourages open talk about sex, but also links homosexuality to HIV/AIDS infections and discourages the celebration of a gay identity. There is also an urban-rural divide in which gay migrant workers are looked down upon by their city counterparts. "There is no universal meaning to being gay," Dr Kong says. "Same-sex desire may be innate, but your identity is socially constructed, that is, when you pick that identity for yourself, it is subject to history, society and culture. In Hong Kong it relates so much to colonialism, family and space. In China it relates to the state and Chinese traditional culture." Traditional expectations That culture as it is followed today is conservative and pins men down to partnering with women, yet the traditional ideal of Chinese masculinity has a place for homosexuality. Professor Kam Louie, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and author of a seminal book on Chinese masculinity, says "There's a lot of gayness in traditional Chinese culture and it's taken for granted. It's often explicit in popular culture. The more elite, refined novels tend to shy away from that, but you will still find that when two men sleep together, there are jealousies and possessiveness," he says. The shying away continues today. Although men openly hold hands and live together, it typically does not even cross people's minds that they might be homosexual, says Dr Kong. This enables men to lead a double life, with a family and children on one hand and male lovers on the other. "But if you want to articulate that same-sex desire and declare yourself as gay and live a gay lifestyle, that's a problem." Some gay men are comfortable with a double life because they feel they have obligations as Chinese men to marry and have children, he says, but even then, their gay identity remains hidden. That has repercussions for public health. Dr Travis Kong There is no universal meaning to being gay. Dr Travis Kong Cover Story 11 June 2011 Queer in China There are different shades to being gay and Chinese, and the ambiguous status has implications for human rights and public health, as HKU scholars have found.