The double lives of gay men in China’s marginal provinces

How do gay people in Hainan negotiate the pressures to conform to the heterosexual script of marriage and reproduction? James Cummings explains

Saturday 12 June 2021 21:30 BST
The town of Sanya, where gays are invisible in plain sight
The town of Sanya, where gays are invisible in plain sight (Getty/iStock)

It’s around 7.30pm on a warm November evening in Jiaji, the county capital of Qionghai, on the east coast of Hainan, an island province of the People’s Republic of China. I’m standing in a park watching middle-aged women dance in formation to music blaring from a loudspeaker when a voice from behind me shouts: “Ah Kang! Let’s go! I’ll take you to see the place where the gays go to play mahjong.”

I turn around to find Ah Tao* hurrying towards me, scrambling over a low hedge. With a population of about 198,000, Jiaji is a small city. I’m here to take a tour of its gay scene and 29-year-old Ah Tao is my guide.

The past 20 years have seen increasing research interest in issues of gender and sexuality in China. This work has explored how, under Maoist socialism (and especially during the fraught years of the Cultural Revolution) “acceptable” modes of gender and sexuality were largely confined to reproductive, cisgender, and heterosexual coupledom.

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