Gay and lesbian work fair hits Shanghai again, but does being ‘out’ suit China?

IF you’re a Westerner, regardless of your sexuality, you’ll know that “coming out” is considered a hugely important step for gay and lesbian people back home. But does being “out” fit within Chinese society, and are initiatives like the annual China Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Talent Job Fair just barking up the wrong tree?

I encountered this conundrum four years ago when I first came to study in China. I thought it was sad that so many Chinese gays and lesbians were still “in the closet” and wondered how damaging that must be for them. How can you live happily while hiding such a big part of your life from others?

The topic interested me so much that it formed part of my master’s graduation thesis at Shanghai’s Fudan University. In total I surveyed 1,000 young Chinese gay men in the hope of better understanding the dynamics of being gay in China today.

What might interest you is the fact that many scholars argue that completely “coming out” is a distinctly Western phenomenon that actually doesn’t fit within Chinese society.

There are many reasons, one of which being that China is a collective society and not an individualistic one, which basically means that people here view themselves not as isolated individuals, but as part of a wider group (family, society, etc).

The act of “coming out” works to suggest that one’s individual feeling and freedom are more important than that of the family, and is therefore seen by many as a selfish thing to do.

Another reason that being completely “out” doesn’t quite fit in China is that while sexuality and sexual freedom in the West are seen as political symbols of expression and power, sexuality in China is more of a subdued affair that doesn’t suit being screamed from the rooftops.

Of the 1,000 young gay men I surveyed, a whopping 63.44 percent said that sexuality is a private matter, and 20.6 percent said they didn’t know. This is an important finding and one that would no doubt be completely opposite in the West. It is also at loggerheads with the idea of being “out and open” about one’s sexuality.

Sexuality is private matter

Not only is sexuality considered something private, but the majority of young Chinese gay men also say that sexuality does not make up an intrinsic part of their character, or who they are. This is also in stark contrast with the West, where sexuality — especially if one is gay or lesbian — often plays an intrinsic role in defining who someone is.

There are more arguments, of course, but my column space is limited.

So not only is being “out of the closet” something that is argued doesn’t really fit within Chinese society, it is also something most young gay men in China today don’t actually care about. One 22-year-old respondent said that he’s told some close friends about his sexuality, but for others it’s wholly irrelevant: “Whether I’m gay or not is of no consequence.”

When it comes to the workplace, only 11 percent felt that telling workmates about one’s sexuality was important.

So why is it, then, that Steven Bielinski — originally from Pennsylvania in the United States and the founder of China’s WorkForLGBT — devotes so much time trying to make LGBT people in China more visible?

He runs a number of initiatives, including the annual LGBT Talent Job Fair, which seeks to link LGBT job seekers with socially conscious Fortune 500 companies. It was held for the third time on June 17. Forty-three companies took part in the job fair this year, but the vast majority were foreign ones that are operating in China.

It turns out his passion comes from past experiences with his own sexuality back home in the United States.

“I’m from a small city and my parents were Christians who believed LGBT people were sinful,” he tells me. So when he moved to China 10 years ago he set out to help others: “(I) wanted to help make things better for the LGBT community in China.”

Bielinski is very passionate and devoted to what he believes is a worthy cause, but I just can’t agree that such a Western outlook on gay life can be transplanted in China.

I’ve had this debate with him before, and thankfully he is a gracious man who is more than willing to talk it out, whether we agree or not.

It might sound backward or harmful or counterintuitive from a Western point of view, but perhaps Chinese LGBT folk just don’t find it that important or useful to tell everyone about a small aspect of their lives that is seen by the majority as a private matter of not much importance.

As someone from a Western country living in China, it can be hard to accept or even see other possibilities, but it’s so important to try.

Sure, gay people aren’t that visible in China, but maybe that’s just the way Chinese people — including LGBT people themselves — prefer it.