In my Chinese class, I learned that the Chinese language doesn’t use gendered pronouns. Instead, the word ta refers to he/him and she/her pronouns. According to The Economist, it was sometimes hard to tell if 9th century Chinese love poetry, during the Golden Age of Chinese literature, was directed towards men or women. Currently in mainland China, homosexuality is no longer criminalized as of 1997. In 2001, being gay was removed from being classified as a mental disorder. However, despite these advances, gay marriage is not legal here.
Even though gay marriage is not legal, there is supposedly still a thriving LGBT population, although I haven’t witnessed it myself. I think it’s difficult to identify LGBT people here because the laws of intimacy seem different than in the United States. For instance, if I saw two adult women holding hands and walking together in the States, I would feel pretty secure in thinking that they were in a relationship. However, two grown women holding hands is a really common sight in Shanghai.
When we first arrived, there was a brief orientation where some of the main cultural differences between the United States and China were discussed. One of these differences was personal space. In the United States, everybody keeps their own bubble of space around themselves and only those who have been deemed emotionally close enough are allowed to breach those bubbles. In China, personal space is not so much of a thing. Crowded subway cars and mobs rushing at lines create every-day situations where people are unabashedly touching complete strangers and it’s seen as normal.
With this lack of awkwardness about physically touching each other, I see a lot more of platonic physical intimacy between adults of the same gender here than I do in the United States. I’ve seen businessmen sharing bikes, two male friends napping on each other in the park, and countless women holding hands as they cross the street. I wonder if any of them were in a relationship.
Taiwan legalized gay marriage this summer and government-monitored media from mainland China barely commented on it, although the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, facilitated millions of positive reactions. According to a Peking University survey findings, there is a huge generational gap for acceptance of the LGBT community – 35% of those born before 1970 would reject a child for being LGBT, while only 9% born after 1990 agree. With the influence of the legalization of gay marriage in Taiwan and the inevitable passing of time leading towards younger people taking political office, gay marriage in China might not be so terribly far away.