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David Wertime

Online, Being Gay In China Gets Much "Respect," But Less "Acceptance"

Yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. If social media in China and the United States is any indication, netizens around the world are very much aware of that fact.

Two young men celebrate May 17th at Chongqing University

Just 20 hours ago, the U.S. State Department (@StateDept) made, if not a wave, then a Twitter ripple when it tweeted a reminder of the day, adding, “Stand up against laws that criminalize love.” Even in conservative Iran, LGBT activists posted images in support of the cause, although they did not feel comfortable showing their faces. 

China also took part. For example, the United Nations’ account on Weibo, China’s Twitter (@联合国), tweeted a reminder to its two-million-plus followers that homophobia is “no different than hatred of women, racism, or xenophobia.” 

But were Chinese netizens supportive of the day, and its message, as well? That depends, quite precisely it turns out, on what you mean by “support.” 

Commenters were very careful to distinguish between “respect” (尊重), “acceptance” (接受), and “support” (支持). Those voicing full-throated support for tolerance often wrote, “support, respect.” Others, also supportive but writing defensively, explained that “[we] don’t seek support, just respect.” @呆文Winnie wrote, “I see others who are at least able to respect it, but cannot accept it themselves.”

Why the parsing?

Anthony Wong, now officially out

Lest this quickly get confusing, it is worth remembering that China has come a long way in the last twenty years, both economically and politically. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and just recently when Canto-pop star Anthony Wong came out, Tea Leaf Nation reported that he found a mostly warm reception online. However, many of those tweeting in support of Anthony Wong were his long-time fans, who either suspected his orientation for years or were loath to stop following a favorite musician. The question of homophobia generally, presented in abstract terms, drew a more mixed crowd of commenters.

For their part, Americans engage in similar parsing, although usually in the context of the question of the legal status of gay marriage specifically, and America’s so-called “culture wars” generally. In China, those particular “wars” do not translate, and the question of allowing gay Chinese full marital rights is not yet being seriously considered. Lacking these existing lines of debate, China’s netizens are choosing to group themselves through their choice of verb.

From all of the online chatter, a rough hierarchy of relative tolerance emerges: 

  • Respect, acceptance and support
  • Respect and acceptance
  • Respect only
  • Outright intolerance and disrespect

So what do netizens actually mean when they invoke these words? 

Outright intolerance and disrespect

Let’s start with the intolerance. Excluding arguments rooted in religious belief, many of the anti-LGBT arguments found in the United States also popped up on Weibo. In particular, the “slippery slope” quasi-argument–if a man can marry a man, why not two men? Why not a dog?–got good play. @AMspace wrote, “Homosexuality has already been legalized, so if one day three men want to make a family, or a woman wants to marry her dog, will the UN celebrate that? There is no baseline to moral depravity, so-called diversity is just a dressed-up excuse. Eventually there will be a day where it is too late for humanity.”

Respect

A strong majority of commenters expressed respect, or something more. There’s a reason. Speaking broadly, modern Chinese society exhibits a baseline of indifference–sometimes healthy, sometimes unhealthy–to the private lives of non-family members. Respect, as used in this discussion, simply means to refrain from actively attempting to stop someone else’s lifestyle. 

But in this context, “respect” is a low bar, and the “slippery slope” argument still obtained. @Swetlana‘s tweet was indicative: “Respect is not the same thing as approval, everything needs a basic standard of value. If everything in this world is all reasonable, there is no way to distinguish between good and bad, how are we supposed to teach [our children]?”

Respect and acceptance

Speaking of children, what would netizens do if they found out their own brother, sister, son, or daughter were gay? Here, where the abstract becomes concrete, many netizens flinched. In such a case, support, or at least acceptance, would be required.

"There's a gay person in every house; you just can't see them," the rhyme goes

Although “acceptance” and “support” were often conflated, many netizens viewed “support” as the final step. One might be able to respect a neighbors’ orientation, even accept their family member’s. But would they be proud of their own homosexual orientation or another’s, actively encouraging that pursuit of happiness? @胆小鬼sammi wasn’t ready yet: “Although looking at [gay] photos makes me a bit uncomfortable, I should accept and respect it.” But not support. 

Support, the final step toward dignity

While those expecting a torrent of intolerance in China might be heartened by what they see in social media, LGBT rights in the Middle Kingdom has a long way to go. @普罗旺斯的枣子树 notes, “China’s already made definite progress on [this question]. But compared to the U.S., Thailand, etc. there’s still a big gap.” 

Judging from a view of Weibo chatter, part of that gap is the lack of support–as opposed to acceptance, delivered a bit gingerly. While some netizens already voice active support, they are but part of a distinct minority, even among web-savvy peers, who are likely more liberal than Chinese society as a whole.

From this perspective, LGBT advocates asking for “respect, not support” may not be asking for enough. Given the speed and unpredictability of China’s development on all fronts, it would not shock this author to see the question of gay marriage in China openly discussed in ten or fifteen more years. But that is when “support”–active, loving encouragement–will prove most crucial. 

This will inevitably involve asking people to show more support than their first inclination. As @小麦抑郁了抑郁了 observed, “70 years ago, if black people and women had not struggled [for their rights], people would [still] take for granted they were inferior. If homosexuals continue to be silent, they will inevitably continue to be pressed into the corners of society.”

And living in these corners, even if done with the “respect” of others, is never enough. @敏哥最潇洒 wrote, “In [still-]feudal China, [being homosexual] is easier said than done. At least I have never seen a gay couple growing old together.” 

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.