For decades, being gay in China meant getting married, having
children and living a lie every single day of your life.
If you ventured an encounter, it was quick, furtive and
anonymous. If you were discovered, you risked job loss,
ostracism and perhaps even arrest.
But with economic reforms and Westernization in recent years,
official repression and societal pressures have shown signs of
easing. Seizing on this small opening, Gary Wu, one of China's
first gay activists, set into motion what could be called a
bona fide movement.
After two years investigating, organizing and making a
documentary in China, Wu has brought his movement to San
Francisco. He is meeting with local gay groups to network and
raise money, and intends to establish an Overseas Chinese Gay
and Lesbian Center in either San Francisco, Los Angeles or New
York by June.
"San Francisco is like a paradise for gays, but there's still a
long road ahead," the 28-year-old Wu said in an interview
The Chinese government's treatment of gays has changed from one
of active harassment - often arresting them on the generic
charge of "hooliganism" - to one of denying and ignoring their
existence: Don't ask, don't tell.
As a result, there's a limited sense of freedom for some young
people. They feel free enough to convene at gay bars and discos
that have sprung up in the larger cities, but not free enough
to tell their families or co-workers.
"It's like a bird in a cage: You open the door, and now the
bird can do whatever it wants, but it has to be careful of the
cat," said a French student who lived in Beijing last year with
his Chinese boyfriend. The student, who asked to remain
anonymous, and his boyfriend recently decided to move to San
Francisco because life as a gay couple in China was marked by
Public attitudes toward homosexuality in China are
characterized largely by ignorance. They don't know what it is
- but whatever it is, it must come from foreigners, Wu said.
"There are others who think it's a disease," he said. "They
say, "Oh, you're gay? You better go to the hospital and get
Understanding of AIDS and HIV transmission is just as lacking.
Many people still think they're safe if they stay away from
foreigners, Wu said.
"If you even suggest using a condom, people look at you like
you're from another planet," the French student said of the gay
community in Beijing.
Official Chinese figures put the number of HIV cases at about
5,000, but international health experts say the actual figure
could be 10 to 20 times higher. HIV testing is usually limited
to intravenous drug users, prostitutes and those who have
Because of immense social pressure to get married and have
children, most gays and lesbians lead closeted double lives.
Gay men often meet in public parks or bathhouses.
Wu quit his job as a journalist in his native Guangdong
province in 1994 and, with the support of a Taiwanese
television company, traveled to 15 Chinese cities for a survey
of gay life.
The resulting TV show was aired by a Hong Kong station, which
was picked up in neighboring Guangdong. That's when his mother
discovered he was gay.
"She was worried I'd have political problems and also wanted to
know what my plans were if I wasn't planning to get married,"
Wu said. "I told her I'd find a partner and have a very nice
His mother is now very supportive of him, but his family still
gets occasional visits from the police inquiring about his
Since 1994, Wu has lived in Beijing. He produced a documentary
on the gay scene in China that debuted at the International Gay
and Lesbian Film Festival in San Francisco last summer,
arriving from China just hours before it was shown to a
The film was titled "Comrades," the new term Chinese gays have
seized upon to refer to themselves. Wu says its use as a word
for friendships of all types dates back to Sun Yat-sen, the
first president of modern China.
Wu plans to organize a film festival this fall featuring
Chinese gay and lesbian works.
"Without a significant amount of international attention and
support, he could spend the rest of his life in jail," said
Julie Dorf, executive director of the International Gay and
Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco, which is
providing Wu with some organizational support.
In San Francisco, Dorf's group, along with the Gay Asian
Pacific Alliance and the Lavender Dragon Society, will host a
reception for Wu Sunday night at the Metropolitan Community
Wu hopes to raise $200,000 to set up his center and eventually
publish monthly newsletters in English and Chinese.
His ultimate goal is the legalization of gay marriage in China.
"This would be the ideal solution for gays and for China's
birth control problem," he said with a smile.