|Gay social groups attend gatherings in Shanghai, which has witnessed an increasingly open gay subculture. [Provided to China Daily]|
Shanghai Pride is preparing for its biggest annual bash in June, four months after the largest gay club in Asia, 1,500-capacity Icon, opened in the city around Valentine's Day. The former French Concession also recently hosted an LGBT speed dating event, indicating an increasingly open gay subculture in the city.
"People in Shanghai are a lot more tolerant than we give them credit for," says Malaysian-Chinese Charlene Liu, one of the city's Pride organizers. "Malaysia and Singapore feel more closeted, even though they are more developed."
She expects 4,000 people to turn up for 10 days of activities, double the number that supported its launch in 2009, when drag shows and "hot body" contests at expat-friendly pubs were the order of the day.
This year's program is more salubrious. As well as NGO workshops and panel discussions aimed at reaching Chinese policymakers, a 6-kilometer run near Jing'an Temple, a ladies' night and a gay movie festival at local consulates have all been penciled in.
"It's getting bigger. There are also a lot more gay social groups now that focus on nondrinking and non-partying," says Liu.
Like the recent flowering of gay social groups including Open Doors Shanghai (mostly for gay men, in English) and tontou.com (more for lesbians, Chinese-language), Pride's healthier program is a welcome antidote to the explosion of gay meet-up apps, some say.
The prevailing cloak of secrecy in China and the rise of Grinder, Scruff, Tinder, Gayromeo.com and Gaydar.com have not so much brought the community out of the shadows as made the shadows easier to get lost in, says Shanghai's Shane Q.
"Social media is basically just for sex, not making friends," says the 21-year-old.
Rampant poverty, ignorance of safe sex and a dominant bar-scene mentality pose a health risk beyond the gay community, according to 28 year-old Anhui native Dwayne Wang.
"There's definitely a correlation between the gay scene being underground and the HIV rate here. Another problem is that gay saunas in Shanghai don't provide free condoms," he says.
Ohio-born Andrew Jordan Shainker launched the Shanghai branch of Open Doors, an international gay social group, last year. He claims it now has almost 100 members, one-fifth of the broader group's total membership.
"There's a massive population here that is only coming out of the woodwork at night," says the 27-year-old redhead, who puts on events like gay movie days, afternoon pottery classes and art trips.
"There's a huge need for more friend-based avenues to meet outside the gay bar scene or apps that use GPS to locate people because those are too closely tied to sex and alcohol."
A leading Chinese sociologist voiced her support for such groups in February ahead of the National People's Congress in Beijing. Li Yinhe told local media that Chinese are constitutionally entitled to set up social organizations, including those with a gay focus.
Academics like Qingdao University professor Zhang Beichuan have also been pushing the government to revise the law and permit same-sex marriages, but Chinese society may not be ready for that yet.
While the city's LGBT community is enjoying a slightly higher level of social acceptance than in previous years, a manic fear of disappointing one's parents or risking a promotion means many are still living a dangerous charade.
"I don't want to be judged," says Wang. "If you let your employers know you are gay here it can stifle your chances of getting promoted. It's a stigma in China that is used to define you."
The irony is that it has become trendy for Shanghainese women to parade gay friends around as a trophy akin to their Galaxy Note 3 or Gucci wristwatch, while unique cultural algorithms keep them clueless of their own relatives' homosexual leanings.
Apart from Chinese society's traditional conservatism, the one-child policy makes the prospect of no offspring that much more threatening for older people.
"I finally told my sister that I was gay last year. She was surprised at first but now she's OK. She said I shouldn't tell our parents because it would really hurt them," says Wang.
In a culture where counterfeits are part of the fabric of everyday life, pretend girlfriends ("shields") and "fake" marriages now coexist with imitation iPhone ear-buds and hoodies bearing the Abercrombie & Fitch label but not trademark.
Such unions mostly involve a gay man and straight woman, with the woman ignorant of her spouse's conflicted feelings. Other relationships are more like a gentleman's agreement between a gay man and a lesbian partner.
"There are at least four or five bath houses in this city crawling with married men at night looking for casual encounters," says 71-year-old Jamie Shale from Sydney. "The younger ones there tend to be 'money boys'".
He says he is involved in a "platonic, cerebral" relationship with Wang.
In local vernacular, Shale would be a "rice queen" (a Caucasian man who likes Asian men) and Wang, in reverse, a "potato queen". Other terms peculiar to the culture include "sticky rice" (an Asian man who likes other Asians), "otters" (skinny, hairless men) and "panda bears" (older, hairier men).
Some gay couples are even holding mock weddings as a serious proclamation of love, even though same-sex marriages are outlawed. China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 but certain fears and phobias remain entrenched.
Due to its international mindset, massive wealth, decadent nightlife and annual Pride festival, Shanghai has become synonymous with China's LGBT movement. But Liu claims Sichuan's Chengdu is the country's gay capital. Sin City would be Dongguan in Guangdong province, an industrial swamp riddled with KTV bars that is almost as seedy as Thailand's Pattaya. It was recently the subject of a sweeping crackdown.
A decade ago Shanghai had two or three gay-friendly bars and clubs. The number is now closer to 10, including Shanghai Studio (a former bomb shelter), longstanding Eddie's Bar and Japanese-style Transit. Shanghai Pride says local authorities have shown more support in recent years despite imposing a ban on the movement's signature parade and refusing to allow them to screen gay movies at restaurants.
But whether they live between panda sanctuaries and streets laced with spicy hotpot restaurants, or party from the French Concession to the Bund, life is not all peaches and cream for those whose sexual desires fall outside the mainstream.
Sometimes the long march toward broader cultural acceptance may feel like a drawnout guerrilla war conducted at night. The recent opening of Icon in Shanghai was heralded as a milestone event, betokening an important step forward.
But the club proved surprisingly discreet, almost buried in the underbelly of Shanghai Stadium. There was no advertising at the closest subway station or on nearby streets. Even from 25 meters away, it was wellcamouflaged.
As the clock ran down to midnight one Friday in early February during the two-story venue's soft opening, the majority of young men stood around awkwardly, their wardrobe hinting at long journeys from farflung rural areas.
Displays of public affection were rare, at least at such an early hour. One heavyset man was dressed flamboyantly in a black dress with an Elvis coiffure. A suited couple gyrated onstage as neon mosaics of subway maps flashed across their faces.
"Gay people in China are very shy. I hate it," says Shane. "I respect Westerners because they're much more confident about their identity."
When the owners of Icon tried to open another gay venue, Angel, in the downtown area in 2011 it was shuttered within a month. After this they apparently bounced like a carnival road show among temporary hosts－Dubai, Obama－before settling down.
"As they don't advertize, you have to be pretty plugged in to find these places sometimes," says Shainker, affronted by the lack of material available online.
When asked how long he thought it would take for Chinese society to accept the gay community, even in people's own homes, Dwayne says "50 to 100 years".
Shale disagrees. "I think within one generation the mindset will change－about a lot of things," says the Australian, who battled similar discrimination decades ago in his home country.
"I'm not as pessimistic as Dwayne."
(Source: China Daily)
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