AT THE end of March a website run by the Communist Youth League published news of a remarkable development in China’s staid, heavily censored film industry. A preview had been released online of what is being described as mainland China’s first film focusing on a gay romance, “Looking for Rohmer”. (On television, there have been documentaries about gay relationships before, as well as dramas hinting at them.) The new film, to be shown “soon”, describes the relationship of two young men, one Chinese, one French, as they travel across Tibet.
The two are not shown holding hands, let alone doing anything more intimate. But China’s cultural commissars, rarely open-minded at the best of times, have been in an unusually censorious mood since 2014, when President Xi Jinping stressed that art must “serve socialism”.
Cheng Qingsong, a film critic, says the makers of “Looking for Rohmer” worried that the censors might change their minds after they approved the film for release last year. The trailer’s appearance, and the Youth League’s interest in it, suggests all is well. More broadly, it shows that, despite a political chill, conservative attitudes to same-sex relationships are changing. In the past, homosexuals were sometimes jailed for “hooliganism”. In 1997 the removal of that ill-defined crime from the statute books lifted what was, in effect, a ban on homosexual activity. In 2001 the health ministry struck homosexuality off its list of mental diseases. But public tolerance remains low. Clinics still offer “cures” for gay people, involving electric shocks or nausea-inducing drugs. No well-known public figure in mainland China has come out.
In a recent survey of 18,650 lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people by WorkForLGBT, a China-based NGO, only 3% of the male respondents and 6% of the female ones described themselves as completely out. A third of the men (though only 9% of the women) said they were in the closet. Only 18% of the men said they had come out to their families, and nearly 80% were reluctant to do so because of family pressure. But half the men and three-quarters of the women had come out to friends, an indication that private tolerance is expanding.
The government itself is also becoming less hostile to gays. In 2013 censors permitted websites and newspapers to discuss LGBT issues. Li Yinhe, an academic and promoter of gay rights, says this was a turning point for homosexuals. Online dating services for gays have sprung up. One of the largest of them, Blued (run by a gay former policeman), was read by over 40% of those surveyed by WorkForLGBT.
A milestone was reached at the end of 2014 when a court in Beijing gave its verdict in a case lodged by a gay man against a clinic which had offered to change his sexuality. He accused it of false advertising and malpractice. The court fined the clinic and ruled that homosexuality was “not a mental disease” and did not require treatment. It was the first reported decision of its kind by a Chinese court.
Gay marriage is still not recognised, but public discussion of it is becoming more lively. Some gay people have held unofficial wedding ceremonies. In June, two internet entrepreneurs (pictured) organised one in a park in Beijing, after encountering great difficulty finding a venue willing to host the event. Chinese media gave the celebration much publicity.
Testing the law
In January a court in the southern city of Changsha agreed to hear a suit filed by Sun Wenlin, a 26-year-old man, against a government agency responsible for marriages. Mr Sun said the agency had illegally refused him permission to marry his male partner. On April 13th, with hundreds of gay-marriage supporters outside, the court ruled against him. That was expected. What was surprising was the court’s acceptance of the case, and the official media’s enthusiastic coverage. “It is we who will win in future,” said Mr Sun’s lawyer, as quoted in a Chinese newspaper.
But Hu Zhijun, the co-founder of a support network for lesbians and gays in China, thinks gay marriage will not become legal until there is clear public support, which is still a very distant prospect. “People don’t want those outside the family to know,” he says. “They still fear losing face.”
And although “Looking for Rohmer” has been approved for release, other works have not been so lucky. Early this year, a popular gay online series called “Addicted (Heroin)” was banned—apparently because of its gay content—after several episodes had been uploaded. In December two television-industry associations issued guidelines, recently leaked online, which said televised portrayals of homosexuality were taboo—as were those of extramarital affairs and sexual promiscuity.
Still, a decade ago censors had banned the showing in China of “Brokeback Mountain”, a Hollywood film about a gay romance between cowboys. It was thus, as one Chinese newspaper put it, “unexpected” when “Looking for Rohmer” gained the censors’ approval