In its online ads, The Beijing Center promises to take students to the China they weren’t expecting. That has certainly been true for me as an openly gay man studying abroad in Beijing. Although I was excited to come to China, I was nervous about how my sexuality would be viewed in a country with a vastly different society, culture, and political system from my own. And even though TBC representatives had promised me that queer people had been welcomed into their community in the past, I’d also heard horror stories about queer American students having disastrous and even dangerous experiences studying abroad (albeit not in China). I figured that I would be less open about my sexuality while abroad, to the point where I even considered not coming out to my new community at all.
However, as anyone in my cohort of TBC students call attest, that has not been the case. While I came to China assuming that my personal “Twenty Gay-teen” was over, in truth, it had only just begun. Like, who knew that, less than a week after arriving in Beijing, I’d be dancing the night away at a gay club with dozens of my new friends? Or that I’d meet queer people not only from the U.S. and China, but from Japan, Korea, Cape Verde, and South Africa as well? Or that I’d end up in Seoul’s famous “Homo Hill?” (Okay, that last one wasn’t technically in China, but it still wasn’t something I was expecting to happen.) Furthermore, in TBC I have found one of the most supportive and affirming communities in which I have been included. The faculty, staff, and fellow students I’ve met – many of whom are queer themselves – have not only accepted my queer identity but also allowed me to fully express and explore it, in some ways more fully than I ever got to do so in the United States. The expectations I had about gay and queer life in China were far from what I experienced, especially within TBC.
To be clear, I can’t speak for all queer people in China. I’ve only been in this country for two months, and I’m no expert on queer life in China (the only research I did for this article comes from Wikipedia’s page on LGBT Rights in China). I may be gay, but I am also cisgender, white, and American, and that has affected my experience. The experience of queer Chinese nationals and gender nonbinary folks in China are quite different from mine. Furthermore, don’t want to paint an overly optimistic, unrealistic picture of queer acceptance in China. Certainly, the queer community in China faces challenges, as we do in every country. Some of these challenges stem from a society that places high value on marriage and family life and does not always understand queer identities or issues. Additionally, like other countries including the United States, cities tend to be more liberal than rural areas, while younger generations are more understanding than older ones. Finally, there’s the legal complications facing queer people in China: while homosexuality has been legal for over 20 years, same-sex couples cannot get married, official recognition, or children; and although transgender people can legally change their gender, they can only do so after undergoing a sex change operation, which they must be at least 20 years old to undertake.
Nevertheless, my personal experience as a queer American studying in China has been a uniformly positive one. I have been able to express my queer self in China more than I thought possible, and doing so has pushed me into some of the most memorable and transformative experiences I’ve had abroad. If other LGBTQ+ students are thinking of studying abroad in China or elsewhere, my advice would be to carefully consider the potential risks and challenges they might face but also to recognize that the preconceived notions they might have about queer life in other countries may not necessarily be accurate. China is a country that, for me at least, is full of surprises, some of which now seem so obvious that I cannot believe how shocked I was by them initially. One of the biggest surprises has been that, despite challenges, China has a large and dynamic queer community. Being a part of that community has been one of the most unique joys I’ve experienced in this country.