What's it like to be gay in China? | The Dragon Trip

What’s it like to be gay in China?

Haena Kim, our Head of Asia Sales, moved to Shanghai with her girlfriend in 2013 with no idea how a gay couple would be treated. She was pleasantly surprised by what she found.

Here’s her take on what it’s like to be gay in China.

Shanghai surprise  

There were always instances in the US, even in New York City, when people would look at us disapprovingly. So when I came to Shanghai with my partner, I expected more of the same – or worse. After all, this was Asia and I knew from experience in South Korea that ‘gayness’, let alone PDA, was frowned upon and more so than in the US.

To my pleasure, when we arrived in Shanghai, I was amazed at the sheer amount of lesbians that I could identify and see showing affection to each other.

Ps and Ts

One reason for this visibility is that gender roles in a lesbian relationship in China are much clearer than in the US. In a Chinese lesbian (or gay) couple, there are Ts and Ps. A T (short for tomboy) is a more butch lesbian usually sporting shorter hair and dressed quite masculine. A P is expected to be the more feminine of the two, with long hair, make-up and in general be the ‘girlier’ girl by societal standards.

A downside to this was that every time my girlfriend and I would go out, we would be asked, ‘Oh, so who is the T?’ because both my girlfriend and I are P presenting. It was almost as if, though we were lesbian, one person in the relationship had to at least present like a man. I still become a little bit offended when asked this question. I try to explain that’s not how I view my relationship. Usually the easiest way to explain this is to say that in the West they don’t divide lesbians into these categories.

Better than NYC

Perhaps due to this visible P and T distinction, when I came to Shanghai I felt like I had never seen as many lesbians in one place in my life. I had been to lesbian and gay nights at clubs during college, and to a lesbian bar in New York City where there were at most maybe forty lesbian women. That was very different from Shanghai.

My partner at the time and I had made code names for lesbians we saw. We called the lesbians ‘Kitties’ and gays ‘Puppies.’ We would walk through malls in Shanghai, and I would tug at her hand excitedly saying “Kitties!”, “Puppies!” what seemed like every ten or twenty meters. This was a change from the US where, perhaps because of the less binary physical presentation of lesbians, I hadn’t felt as represented.

No fear

In general, the Chinese don’t care whether you’re gay or not, as long as you’re not their own child. And the people here are mild tempered. Even if they were to find gayness distasteful, it is very unlikely they would ever act on their emotions and even more unlikely they would resort to any form of violence. If you are an LGBT traveler in China, have no fear. It is highly unlikely that you will be ‘gaybashed’ or assaulted for anything else.

Clubs and bars

Shanghai is better for the LGBT party scene than any other city that I have been to. And that’s a long list that includes New York City! Here are some venues that you will definitely want to visit if you’re in Shanghai.



Tolerance, not rights

Despite all these upsides, presence and tolerance are not the same as legal rights and representation. Gay marriage is not legal in China. Nor are there domestic partnership laws. When my partner and I moved to China, we found it was impossible to get a spousal visa.

Transgender rights are non-existent, and there are no equal housing laws to date. In fact, China did not remove homosexuality from its index of mental disease until 2001!

Same-sex couples cannot adopt as children are not eligible for ‘hukou’ (local residency papers) unless both a mother and father sign the papers. This means that single mothers can’t send their children to school. Imagine the difficulties a lesbian couple would face trying to get papers for a child.

Recently a man was forcibly sent to a mental institute by his family for being gay. The hospital refused to let him leave, citing that his immediate family’s wish was for him to be ‘cured.’ It was only after a community effort of making calls to the hospital and seeking legal help that he was finally released back to his boyfriend.

Family values

The point of tension in China for the LGBT community is different to the US. The US, for all its progressive facets, has a Christian narrative woven into its politics. Religion is often used to defend the denial of rights to the LGBT community.

China is not particularly religious. Living together before marriage is not considered a sin. And there is no hellfire and brimstone waiting for homosexuals. The point of tension in China boils down to two other factors.

First, China is a country of only children. This means that if your child is gay, what with adoptive rights being next to non-existent, your family line dies with your child. And though China is not religious it does retain many of its Confucian values, which emphasise family relations.

Secondly, shame, shame, shame. ‘Face’ matters a lot for many Asian countries. Parents don’t want their children to be gay for fear that they will be excluded from society. The nail that sticks out gets hammered in, is a saying that applies in East Asian society.

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Wiets Helwig

About Wiets Helwig

Wietske’s taste for wanderlust was sparked at an early age. She grew up as an expat living in Belgium, Austria, Poland, China, Canada, The Netherlands, and The United Kingdom. Each year, she sets out to explore a new country, her latest adventure taking her to the Tibetan Plateau.


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