Being gay in China or Tibet
By Craig Young
30th March 2008 - 11:45 am
Given current debates about China and Tibet, what stances do both societies have on LGBT issues?
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Before Communist China occupied it in 1948, Tibet was a theocracy, ruled by a monastic hierarchy, whose population growth tended to be low, given the high proportion of celibate Buddhist monks and nuns in the mountainous Himalayan nation. The current Dalai Lama believes that lesbian and gay sex are closed to his school of Buddhism, in which they are depicted as "bad" forms of sexual contact, although monogamous heterosexual recreational sex with birth control is okay. However, it should be noted that he acknowledges that there is global Buddhist debate on the subject, does not claim infallibility, although from this perspective, lesbian and gay Buddhists are not "good" Buddhists. He also stated he did not believe that homosexuality should be subject to criminal sanctions.
As for China, it had a rich tradition of male homoerotic literature, with accompanying candid artwork. Emperors, nobility, civil servants and peasants all embraced same sex love, especially in cases of exemplary spousal fidelity between partners and otherwise virtuous ethical conduct. Taoism and Chinese Buddhism didn't concern themselves about regulating gay sex, and while Confucianism was puritanical and family oriented, it was only intermittently so.
Unfortunately, the Chinese Empire began to disintegrate in the nineteenth century, leading to an influx of antigay western Christian proselytisers, as well as unwelcome attention from rapidly modernising adjacent Japan, which began a programme of aggressive colonial expansion on the East Asian mainland after the First World War. When the last Manchu Emperor was deposed in 1912, China descended into anarchy as powerful regional warlords struggled for control. However, Shanghai and other eastern Chinese coastal cities developed thriving gay subcultures. Japan and the United States came to blows over the colonial and territorial ambitions of each, leading to the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.
When that conflict ended with Japan's defeat, China had to endure four more years of civil war between the conservative nationalist Kuomintang and Mao Tse-Tung's communists, ending in victory for the latter in 1948. Maoist marxist-leninism was strongly agrarian, and while male homosexuality and lesbianism were not criminalised, they were considered 'bourgeois decadent' or lumpen acts, and led to imprisonment within 're-education camps.' Metropolitan gay and other intellectuals suffered during Mao's disastrous "Cultural Revolution" of the sixties, due to its anti-urban and anti-intellectual bias.
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After Mao died in 1976, China gradually embraced market capitalism, although the Communist Party of China still does not permit meaningful political pluralism. However, burgeoning trade, economic growth, technological development, urbanisation and higher education have led to the regrowth of Eastern Chinese lesbian and gay social networks, particularly in Shanghai.
Due to the arrival of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Chinese health authorities have abandoned their earlier homophobic stance. The Chinese Psychological Association has not considered homosexuality to be a 'psychopathology' since 1994, and while there are no autonomous LGBT rights groups, Beijing has had to recognise LGBT social networks to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, China has no national anti-discrimination laws, nor does it extend legal recognition to lesbian and gay couples.
As for Tibet, China has occupied that territory continuously for more than sixty years now. It has suppressed uprisings, such as that in 1968, but as China has become an economic and military superpower over the last twenty years, it has faced increasing western criticism of its internal human rights abuses, exploitative labour practices, environmental degradation and other foreign policy concerns. In addition to the thorny issue of Tibet, we would do well to remember Beijing's support for the current military dictatorship in Burma, and itsarms shipments to Sudan's repressive and racist Islamist government, which has resulted in the Darfur humanitarian crisis.
However, it is Tibet which has aroused sympathy, due to export of its indigenous spiritual traditions to the west, as well as the charismatic and articulate leadership of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, no tidy resolution to that troubled nation's suffering is immediately obvious.
Louis Crompton: Homosexuality and Civilisation: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 2003.
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