To many gay men and women, Ba Li is an inspiration. At the age of 72, he has endured decades of humiliation because of his sexuality, including being sentenced to a total of seven years hard labor. Yet it is his message of hope that resonates most with young homosexuals.
His extraordinary life charts the slow but sure transformation in Chinese attitudes towards the gay and lesbian community, and although difficulties still exist, he believes people now enjoy more freedom than ever to express their sexuality.
The pensioner, who asked to be called Ba Li — the same Chinese characters for Paris — to protect his family, invited China Daily to his birthday celebrations at a small restaurant not far from Xidan, the commercial heart of Beijing.
“I have lived through sorrows and joys,” he said after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, surrounded by several gay friends. “I am no longer considered a wrongdoer and I can finally live my life with my head held high.”
At his birthday party Ba Li sang, read poems and posed for numerous photographs with friends, stopping only to look at a picture of his boyfriend he kept in his shirt pocket. Many of his guests said how much they admired him for his courage in tougher times.
“I knew I was a woman’s soul in man’s body at very early age,” he said, his round face breaking into a broad smile. He was 16 when he started his first relationship, which lasted four years. “At the time, homosexuals were called ‘rabbits’ or other more derogatory names, and they met in secret at parks, bathhouses or public restrooms.”
His mother refused to accept his sexuality. “One night she sneaked into my bedroom when she thought I was sleeping and checked my body for abnormalities,” he said. His parents eventually forced him into a marriage that lasted less than six months. The marriage produced a daughter but he has no contact with her.
In 1977, Ba Li was sentenced to three years in a labor re-education camp after being found guilty of sodomy. He said another homosexual reported him to the police. The teacher was immediately fired from his job at a respectable high school as the supervisor felt he had “committed a crime that could never be forgiven”, he said.
He was also interred in 1982 and 1984, each time for two years.
“I even suffered discrimination from other inmates in prison,” he said. “Once I gave a young boy a steamed bun out of sympathy and I was beaten like a dog. It was so bad I contemplated jumping off the top of one of the labor camp buildings.” When he walked free from the camp in 1986, he said attitudes were already starting to change. “I began to see more gay people being active within their circles and the word ‘homosexual’ was being used more by the media,” he said.
Unemployed, Ba Li sold maps of Beijing to make a living and worked as a volunteer to distribute leaflets on AIDS prevention among the gay community. “Police used to take us back to the station and confiscate the pamphlets because they said they contained evil and pornographic content,” he said.
Since the early 1990s, the Chinese government has become increasingly tolerant about homosexuality. By 1997, the law that outlawed sodomy was repealed, while homosexuality was officially removed from the nation’s list of mental illnesses in 2001.
Li Yinhe, a renowned sexologist with the sociology institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, proposed legalizing same-sex marriages during the annual session of the National People’s Congress in 2000. However, the suggestion was not publicly discussed until 2003 when policymakers met to talk about amending the Law on Marriage. They decided not to approve same-sex marriage.
Following a nationwide study, the Chinese government estimated in 2004 that the country has between 5 and 10 million homosexual men aged 15 to 49.
Despite being open among his friends, Ba Li still hides his relationship from his adopted son. Like many in the gay community, his boyfriend has a wife and family.
Attitudes may have changed but discrimination continues to be widespread, while Liu Dalin, a sexologist at the sociology college of Shanghai University, estimated about 90 percent of homosexuals have or will get married due to family pressure.
Of the 1,259 gay men who responded to a 2008 survey by Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University in Shandong province, 62 percent said they had never “come out” — when a person openly reveals their homosexuality. Nine percent said they had been fired from their jobs or forced to quit after employers discovered they were gay, and 5 percent believed their sexuality had affected their income and career development. About one-fifth said they had suffered verbal and physical abuse. More shockingly, about 35 percent of respondents admitted they had contemplated suicide, while 13 percent had attempted it.
Liu Huaqing, a psychiatrist at the Beijing Huilongguan Hospital said he receives many patients suffering depression or looking to “correct” their sexual orientation. “Some are adolescents accompanied by parents and some are married men,” he said.
Discrimination has led to a large proportion of the nation’s estimated 30 million gay men and women being forced to keep their sexuality a secret, said Zhang. However, this has impacted the Ministry of Health’s attempts to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, with homosexual men having overtaken drug users as the most high-risk group. On Dec 1, 2009, the ministry said that 42 percent of new infections were through heterosexual sex, while 32 percent was through homosexual intercourse.
In a recent government study, the infected rate among gay men in Beijing has increased to 4.9 percent, 10 times that of five years ago, according to Focus Magazine.
There were 48,000 new cases of HIV and AIDS reported last year, more than 32 percent were infected through homosexual sex, the Ministry of Health said on Dec 1. As the vast majority is also married, health experts say the virus is quickly spreading among the female population, too.
More than 46 percent of the men polled by Professor Zhang agreed a more tolerant society and a law banning discrimination would help control the rate of infection. In a 2008 survey by sexologist Li Yinhe, she discovered large sections of society strongly believe an “openly gay person should not be allowed to teach in schools”, while many agreed homosexuality was “completely wrong”.
China’s HIV and AIDS policies have in the main educated the public to be more tolerant, but “linking homosexuality so closely with the virus has also caused fear”, according to Wei Jiangang, a gay rights activist and co-founder of queercomrades.com.
Zhang once received a letter from a man who said his father was so upset about his relationship with another man that he killed his boyfriend. “I wrote to him and told him he did not do anything wrong. His father was sent to prison,” he said.
The acceptance of gay men and women in Chinese society has been hampered by a long history of silence on the issue but the topic is finally being addressed in schools, said the professor. “A junior high school textbook printed in 2005 taught children about not discriminating against homosexuals,” he said. However, it is still forbidden by law to refer to homosexuality in films, television shows or literature, even though it is no longer listed as pornographic. Brokeback Mountain, for example, an Oscar-winning film about a love affair between two cowboys directed by Ang Lee, was not shown in cinemas on the Chinese mainland.
When it comes to the homosexual population, the central government is focused solely on HIV and AIDS prevention, “they are still cautious on the other aspects”, said Zhang.
Mr Gay China, the country’s first beauty pageant for homosexual men, was called off just an hour before opening in January. Organizers later picked contestant Xiao Dai, 25, from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, as their representative for Mr Gay World 2010 in Oslo, Norway this month. He finished fourth in the competition.
The nation lacks a consistent policy towards homosexuality, according to Wan Yanhai, an AIDS prevention activist and director of the Aizhixing Institute of Health Education in Beijing. “The authorities ignore most of activities but intervene when events cause too much attention,” he said.
Gay rights websites were also been affected by China’s ongoing war on porn, with several closed in 2008 as part of the crackdown.
To help prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS among gay men, the government in 2007 invited more NGOs to get involved and called on the media to promote tolerance.
Li Yinhe said she will again propose legalizing same-sex marriage during the two sessions of the National People’s Congress, the nation’s legislature, next month, while Zhang called for the government to introduce firm laws to ban discrimination. A spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Affairs declined to comment.
However, many experts and gay people agreed that changing attitudes is a slow process.
“It took me years to come to ease with my homosexuality, so I don’t expect others to accept me quickly,” said beauty pageant contestant Xiao Dai.
On the signature board at the entrance of the Mr Gay China event in January, gay rights activist Wei Jiangang wrote a 1925 quote by revolutionary leader, Sun Yat-sen: “Revolution has not yet succeeded; our comrades need to push on.”