Notes on LGBTQ life in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from a gay / lesbian / bisexual Chinese Canadian to demystify stereotypes of queer life in East Asia. If you just want information, check out my working LGBTQ resource list covering Japan, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The Backstory and Disclaimers
Disclaimers: I must start off with all the disclaimers (there can never be too many these days) lest anyone take me too seriously.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 2009, I was pretty sad to discover the pre-Cambrian state of LGBTQ life. Whether it was pervasive casual homophobic jokes, the small size of a march, or the seemingly non-existent community, it seemed to fit the stereotypes of Asia. Yet, little by little, I’d stumble on small gay nuggets. Someone at work mentioned their date; friends began introducing me to friends, events, upstairs bars, and underground circles; I went from being mostly quiet about my sexuality, to mostly out about it. Somewhere, the scales tipped, and I found myself thinking that I quite like the scene here.
This is the list of things I’ve grown to enjoy about being gay in East Asia, which may or may not be found in other places in the world.
East Asia encompasses China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan. This article doesn’t cover Korea, where my knowledge ends at the Wikipedia LGBT History in South Korea article, the Frozen video that went viral, and their cultural penchant for beautification.
I will refer to people in the above region as ‘Asians’. This normally includes South Asians, South East Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, the people of the Steppes and the ‘Europeans’ in ex-Soviet states. That list should be retitled ‘most of the world’.
Also, this article is skewed towards gay, lesbian and bisexual experiences and doesn’t cover the entire LGBTQA+ / LGBTTIQQ2SAA spectrum. Those require other posts.
Finally, ‘queer’ isn’t common in Asia because English word reclaimations are for English-language countries; I’m going to stick to the word everyone understands: gay.
I’ll add links for further information on each section as I go. This is meant as an overview descriptive piece.
Alright. Here we go.
1. Asian Gays Make Up the World’s 9th Most Populous Country.
If we were all ejected out of our respective countries and carved a piece of land, we wouldn’t be too lonely.
China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea have over 50 cities at 1 million people each. Over 11 out of 35 mega-cities (10+ million people) are in East Asia. These 4 countries combined have 1.596 billion people. If the 10% gay standard is applied, it means we are 159.6 million strong. That’s comfortably 10 million more than Russia, the current #9. Anyhow, these four countries have a lot of people for me to choose from. And to the rest of the world: Beware, the horde!
2. Party Workaholic Asian-Style
Some places wait once a year for that awesome crowd at Pride. Crowds are the norm in Asia. Pride here is the best of both worlds with Asian-sized parties coupled with early community-style casualness. These celebrations (yes, not just protests) are mostly about people showing up. Want a photo with a drag queen? Find her chilling at a food truck after the show rather than ushered into a limo to some exclusive corporate-sponsored, invite-only after-party
Also, for the people who follow the June and August Prides, every year can be a renewed crisis of which one to attend. Toronto, New York, San Fran, or London? Vancouver or Montreal? On this side of the Pacific, we don’t wait to party and we’re not rigid about dates. Pride in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo are all in different months. Pride alone might not be enough for some party animals, so check out the other massive events that that we gays crash and and co-opt annually.
Asian life can be a merry-go-round of gaycations.
3. Closets are home.
The Asians are experts in the unspoken, code, secrets, and covert operations. If you’re still single by 30, rest assured you are the staple topic of many conversations. There’ll be a growing collection of chatter and secret schemes on your behalf. Perhaps you’ll be introduced to all the family friends’ kids around your age and then asked the next day what you thought of them. Your elders will quietly file away your rejects and continue conspiring.
Naturally, full closets sometimes explode. Keep a straight face if some relative (probably your parents) blurt out, ‘After I went out of my way to do that for you xx years ago! This is how you repay me!’ Of course, they’d made a point not to tell you; you were supposed to figure it out. You were expected to follow the trail of breadcrumb clues to that closet. You can retort with self-righteous incredulity, ‘How could you not have figured it out?!’ and point to all the Facebook photos when your relatives are shocked. How could their years of experience fail to find this closet?!
4. If it’s a boy, it’s okay.
I’m referring to a historical practice in Japan (shudo, wakashu) where members of the clergy and warrior classes took pupils as male lovers until they came of age. Oaths were sworn, papers signed. Same-sex sex was so common the Japanese government abolished a law on anal sex 7 years after they first introduced it in 1872. The Japanese loved their boys as much as the Greeks did, and another masterpiece Odyssey would have been inevitable if they had only met.
For that matter, the Chinese scholarly elite loved their bromance too. Chinese poems littered with scholarly men pining for friends or dreaming of their drinking binges in a mountain hovel with their lovers. In some Chinese provinces, there were even male marriages. No wonder we can be apolitical about these things. The litigations were already dealt with centuries ago.
5. Everyone’s a Little Gay in Asia.
Sadly, a cis-gender homophobe can’t go a day without gay media harassment these days. LGBT content manifests in sex-changing kungfu heroes and heroines, gossip tabloids on millionaire’s gay daughters, and media and actors playing up nonexistent bromances. The straight friends made all this. Yaoi (boy’s love) and yuri (girl’s love) is basically straight people writing for other straight people in Japan. We just sit back, relax, and enjoy the feast.
We Asian gays devote our time to playing beautifully dirty. We don’t bother rationalising with haters. Heck, they make our content. We reciprocate by making great content for them too. A homophobe can be protesting against gay marriage while looping Leslie Cheung‘s songs. Protest all you want as long as you keep loving our stuff. We love yours. By the way, are you sure you’re not gay?
6. Asia’s Golden Coming Out Middle Ground
First, there was out, and not. Then, people realised there was out to close family and friends, some people, and everyone. In Asia, this applies to everyone. Closets aren’t discriminatory here. Heaven forbid that your parents find out about your sister’s Black date.
As for you, you’ve introduced your plus-one to your friends already. Maybe you just didn’t tell them. The really big meeting is with the family. Of course, you don’t tell your family this is a meal filled with significance; they’re supposed to figure it out. Plus, there are always the relatives on Facebook who will like every photo (with said plus-one) and show your parents. At some point, your plus-one will be such a fixture that someone is bound to ask if they aren’t around. Don’t be too judgemental if people are a bit slow. Some people may genuinely think they’re your best friend for a decade. As I mentioned in point #3, picking reading signs is a skill that takes a lifetime to master.
7. Smartphones Brought the Gays.
Asia’s LGBTQ visibility rides in tandem with increasing affluence and mobile penetration. However, the smartphone in someone’s hand is more consequential than your gay existence. Your gayness does not help them pass their university entrance exams nor relieve them of their overtime hours. People are too busy with their lives to bother with yours unless you are literally in their way. The only time people are dependably hostile is if you crushed their phone and during rush hours. In Asia, people don’t need to pick on the flaming gays to vent their frustrations or excess energy. Everyone in the urban centres satisfies their daily violence quota by shoving, squishing, and suffocating others in the trains.
8. The Right Label is the Best Sounding Label.
LGBTTIQQ2SAA is English. In other words, it’s a transplant in a region that speaks hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean dialects (+ indigenous languages).
Asia skipped the name muddling and bungling. We may be jealous lovers, but we’re not hung up over reclaiming words. Of course, we realised we needed terms for the times. We went for 同志, 同性戀 and 同性愛 (in Japan) for same-sex love. They’re self-explanatory. Then, we just went back to what really matters: what’s easy to say and what sounds good. Hence, you have terms like 拉拉 (lala) for lesbian, “les”, and trusty old “gay”. In fact, English is pretty useful to us. We use it for groups, events, apps, etc. We go with whatever sounds best to our non-English ears and accommodates flying rainbow squirrels.
9. Boxes are the Most Efficient.
Boxes work, damn it. Why doesn’t the rest of the world see this? We’re gay. A successful gay life is attained when we procure our same-sex partner. In order to achieve this goal, we need compartments. Type A and B find each other best if they get into their respective boxes and look in the other one. Below are some example starter labels.
For guys: Bottom (0) / Top (1) / Both Ways (0.5)
For girls: Tomboy (T) / Princess (P) / Tomboy Girl (TBG)
In Japan, tell someone what type of guy you’re into within the first few minutes. Be as specific and thorough in your description as possible, otherwise no one can help you in this grand orchestration of match-making!
We are talking about dating logistics. We are being respectful of people’s time and trying to match up these 150 million gays (from point #1). Also, when we decide boxes aren’t useful for finding the love of our lives, we’ll change the system. There won’t be an existential crisis. It’s called Doing What Works and Moving On.
10. Brace Yourself for Cyber Apocalypse.
Asians invented the selfie stick. Media and image are of paramount importance. We homos are no slackers in creating our digital identities and reaching out to people with vlogs (video blogs), chat rooms, or apps. This is full-on propaganda and gay-conversion.
Our country governments have been invaluable in pushing telecommunications. Korea has the fastest internet in the world, and Japan and Hong Kong are not far behind. Be grateful we prefer our own scripts (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) because they’re more concise even though many of us know English. When we decide to flip the English switch, we may overload your bandwidth. But hey, you’re probably dying for our content. We’ll oblige soon.
There’s a lot more to love, but this list is pretty close.
What I like about Asia’s LGBTQ culture is how it is just one part of a person’s personal and social identity. It doesn’t always have to be about the loaded identity politics that dominate some global discourses.
I also love that Asia’s picked up LGBTQ things as fast as they pick up the latest technology. Asia basically compressed North America’s Stonewall-’til-now timespan into a decade. This young chapter of LGBTQ activism has given me the opportunity to see how a community grows. East Asia is known for its breakneck speed, and in this case, I think we’re in the right direction.