The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name — Discreetly

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China Photos / Getty Images

Drag queens and volunteers play a game to experience joining forces during a HIV/AIDS awareness promotion at the gay bar "Boy Friend Bar" in Beijing, China.

The west side of Beijing's venerable Workers' Stadium is ground zero for the capital's party animals. Stretching south of the stadium gate is a row of huge dance clubs with names like Babyface, Coco Banana, Cargo and Angel, each competing with its neighbors to be bigger, brighter and louder. But on the other side of the road, the offices and shops are shuttered and dark by late evening when revelers start pouring out of taxis. Only one discrete neon sign is visible, backlit white letters above a small stairway picking out the name, "Destination," Beijing's premier gay club.

Despite its unassuming exterior, the long lines of young men waiting for entry on most weekend nights are a giveaway. And inside it's all action. On a recent Saturday night, hundreds of men milled around the outer rooms drinking and flirting. Around the tennis-court-sized dance floor an Eminem concert featuring the singer performing with what appeared to be members of a circus troupe, including a dwarf, looped on half a dozen video screens, and pulsing lasers and strobe lights flashed over the mass of writhing, sweating bodies. It's been like this every weekend for the last couple of years, the club's manager says, with dancing continuing until the last customer leaves around five or six.

Xiao Wang, as he is introduced to me, is propped up against a wall in one of the bars. The 29-year-old architect, who sports a discreet stud earring and a fresh razor cut, looks puzzled when I ask him about the drawbacks of being gay in Beijing, whether he gets hassled by the authorities? "Hassled for what? Being gay?" He laughs. "Why would they want to do that?"

There's never been a better time to be gay in China, but as Destination's somewhat schizophrenic combination of outer reserve and inner exuberance demonstrates, it still pays to be careful. Beijing's attitude has been described as a Triple No policy: no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. That hands-off approach — a sort of commercial don't ask, don't tell policy — is emblematic of the delicacy with which the Communist regime is learning to deal with many of the issues concerning personal liberties that are increasingly being raised by its burgeoning middle class. For their part, homosexuals in China seem perfectly happy to pursue their lives within the broad boundaries allowed by the government, albeit not without the occasional snipe at the authorities. It's no coincidence, for example, that the once ubiquitous term tongzhi — comrade — is now only heard as a slang term among young Chinese for gay men.

Once upon a time, the Communist government strictly enforced draconian laws against homosexuality, imprisoning and even executing those convicted. As China's economy opened to the world, so did the authorities' stance soften, with gay communities springing up in the larger coastal cities that benefited most from the boom such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It's a process that had been accelerating along with the economy so that recent years have seen the sort of advances that allow young gay men like Xiao Wang the confidence to be blissfully ignorant of past problems the community has faced.

Historically, Chinese society was relatively relaxed about male homosexuality, with the practice tolerated so long as it didn't interfere with the Confucian duty to raise a family. Although an imperial decree was issued (likely under the influence of Christian missionaries) banning homosexuality in 1740, it was not until the advent of the Communists that gays and lesbians were driven underground. A law banning sodomy was dropped in 1997 and in 2001 homosexuality was removed from the country's official list of mental diseases.

"It gets freer and freer every year," says Bernie, a forty-something who takes a longer perspective. "And every year more and more guys come out of the closet. In Beijing and the big cities, you can see couples walking round the shopping malls holding hands. In the smaller cities some people are still underground, but even there, I hear it's getting better all the time."

Still, Beijing is no San Francisco. Openly gay filmmaker Cui Zien says it's still easy to cross an invisible line drawn by the authorities when it comes to publicly celebrating gay culture. "I organized a gay film festival in July of last year, and the authorities warned us not to advertise the location and the date of the festival anywhere. Not even on the Internet." Despite the restrictions, though, the festival was allowed to go ahead (unlike some previous years) and was actually well attended. Since the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2004, the government has completely reversed its policy on AIDS, and Cui notes that "there are lots of education programs on safe sex and HIV prevention in gay communities and on the Internet, and there is also lots of funding available to safe sex campaigns."

Back at Destination, Xiao Wang is still struggling to explain to me how things work. A friend in a leather jacket grabs his shoulder and pulls him towards the dance floor but he hesitates. "If you do something wrong, of course you can get into trouble. But that's not just for gays. That's true for all Chinese. Other than that," he says, turning to follow his friend towards the pulsing music, "we're free to live our lives."