In a shabby hall in a working-class area of Shanghai, dozens of men slow dance to a ballad, enjoying a few hours in the company of other homosexuals before going home — many to their wives.
Every weekend evening, men of all ages pay 7 yuan (US$1) to waltz, rumba and be themselves — no small feat in China, where homosexuals still face crushing social and familial pressure.
“If you’re gay and people find out in my hometown, everything is over,” said Leon, a 28-year-old tour guide from Anhui Province who has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, is married and has a boyfriend on the side. “But in Shanghai, there are a lot of people like us and places like this — it’s a good city for us.”
Homosexuality has long been a sensitive issue in China, where it was officially considered a mental disorder until 2001, but experts and gays say there has been marked improvement.
“In the past, even in the early 2000s, gay bars in normal cities would often be subject to police interference,” said Zhang Beichuan (張北川), a Qingdao University professor and an expert on homosexuality. “Now the situation has changed ... One can do lots of things more openly.”
Shanghai is considered by some as the “gay capital” of China, boasting trendy bars, clubs and even sport teams such as swimming and volleyball squads for homosexuals.
The city also discreetly hosted the nation’s first gay pride festival last June. Although authorities canceled some events, they allowed most to go ahead.
Other cities in China are also opening up. A government-backed gay bar opened in December in Dali, in Yunnan Province.
Experts estimate there are about 30 million gays and lesbians in China — which would be just 2.3 percent of the population. Observers concede the number could be higher as many still refuse to come out.
Back at the Lailai dance hall, as couples waltz on lino flooring under flashing green and red lights and tinsel, Ma Qun sits, quietly watching.
The 75-year-old says he never married, but also never dared find a boyfriend either, growing up as he did at a time when no one in the country even admitted homosexuality existed.
“Now, though, there is no more pressure in my heart,” he said with a smile.
Experts say Chinese people’s acceptance of homosexuality has increased thanks to the work done by non-governmental organizations, the media, some schools and the Internet to raise awareness and understanding.
However, many are still unable to accept it, particularly in smaller cities and in the countryside.
“The main reason lies in the fact that China really cares about continuing the ancestral line,” said sexologist Li Yinhe (李銀河), adding the country’s one-child policy also had a great impact.
“If you don’t procreate, then the family will have no descendants. In China, the term juehu [without descendants] is actually a swear word.”
Acknowledging this concern, some gays and lesbians in China are marrying each other to satisfy their parents’ demands.
One bar even hosts “matchmaking” sessions for gays and lesbians to meet with a view to tying the knot, said Kenneth Tan, spokesman for Shanghai LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender).
While China is mainly devoid of any religious influence that could lead to anti-gay discrimination, homosexuality is still not entirely accepted politically.
In January, police canceled the nation’s first Mr Gay China beauty pageant in Beijing after it had attracted weeks of coverage both in foreign and domestic media.