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The recipe for survival, Matthew says, is “making small progress” rather than big political and social statements that rattle China’s hypersensitive authorities.
The mood in Chengdu started to sour in October when the MC Club was closed after explicit photos were posted online and local media reported that HIV infections had been linked to sex parties allegedly taking place at the venue’s sauna.
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Some in the gay community say a spike in the number of domestic LGBTQ visitors – unable to travel overseas because of the coronavirus pandemic – drew unwanted attention from city authorities.
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Major gay bars in the city were temporarily shut down, ostensibly to control a public health crisis. Then, an activist said, all of the city’s LGBTQ organisations were suddenly investigated.
China’s LGBTQ population still encounters discrimination and lacks legal safeguards in a country that as recently as 2001 still classified being gay as a mental illness.
Gay marriage is
, especially among the younger generations. But major obstacles block their progress.
President Xi Jinping has overseen a drive against anything considered antithetical to Communist Party values – leaving little room for gay pride. Beijing also frowns on large civil society mobilisations of any kind.
In August, ShanghaiPRIDE, China’s longest-running annual LGBTQ festival,
No explanation was given for why the event was pulled, but rumours abound of pressure on the organisers as the LGBTQ community is boxed in by conservative social values.
To locals, Chengdu is the final holdout. They say the city’s gay-friendly ambience derives from its eclectic mix of ethnic minorities and cultures, as well as its handy distance from Beijing and the strictures of mainstream China.
The city’s allure is “its openness”, said activist Matthew, whose office is festooned with rainbow flags and posters reading “be proud, be yourself”.
“People here generally don’t care what your sexual orientation is.”
Before it was shut, the MC Club was packed with about 1,000 people each night, an activist said. Its anything-goes reputation is folkloric across the gay community in the city of 16 million. One gay man said he received a sexual massage in a sauna at the premises and had previously attended a party in the dark where no clothes were allowed.
China’s first widely reported gay marriage took place in Chengdu in 2010 – a ceremony between two men that was symbolic because same-sex unions still have no legal basis.
Still, China’s rainbow community remains in the dark compared with many freer Asian countries. Gay bars refused on-the-record interviews and most interviewees declined to be identified.
“These past few years, mainstream ideology became more aggressive and the LGBT community has been more marginalised,” said Tang Yinghong, a professor who teaches sexual psychology.
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At HUNK club, there are no rainbow flags and most clubbers chat quietly, holding hands. Its dancers have recently added the kimonos to their kit to avoid the unwanted attention garnered by the MC Club, a patron said.
Teacher Ray, who relocated to Chengdu this year, said he was uncomfortable with coming out at home in the northwestern city of Xian. But “everyone in Chengdu knows I’m gay – my boss, some of my students’ parents, all of my friends”.
The secret to survival is avoiding noisy social and political advocacy, says Hongwei, a member of a Chengdu NGO, using a pseudonym.
LGBTQ groups in the city instead focus on community needs such as psychological support and help for those coming out, while some readily report planned events to authorities to keep everything above board.
At a trendy teahouse in the city centre, same-sex couples nestle together in wicker chairs and sip tea, without raising any eyebrows.
“I never had anyone here tell me how to live,” says Hongwei, pouring out cups of green tea from a stylish black pot. “We just manage our own business here, and don’t interfere with others.”