When Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe was looking for top-level government support for same-sex marriage in the early 2000s, she asked the then mayor of Beijing, Wang Qishan, a friend, for help.
But rather than getting a shocked response, Wang simply shrugged his shoulders, Li told Reuters.
“He told me he looks after garbage collection, water pipes, that sort of thing. Same-sex marriage isn’t up to him,” said Li, who works for the government-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“That’s the problem in China. Who is in charge of this stuff?”
After decades of Communist prudery about sex of all kinds, during recent years of economic reform and growth, gay Chinese have sprung forward to reclaim the country’s long history of relative tolerance toward homosexuality.
With no clear, bureaucratic way forward to legalize same-sex marriage, unlike in Taiwan which approved the step last month, and deeply conservative attitudes among the older generation toward sex, gay Chinese are pushing against old social norms and legal uncertainty to assert their rights.
Until 2001, China listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, but it is not illegal to be gay.
Many big cities have thriving gay scenes, although gay men and women still face family pressure to marry and have children, fulfilling the Confucian tradition of honoring ancestors by ensuring the family line.
While Taiwan’s decision paving the way for same-sex couples to marry was largely ignored by the mainstream Chinese media, it got big play on social media, with many supportive comments.
Next week, China’s cosmopolitan business capital Shanghai will host its ninth gay pride event, four days of films, talks and parties, though without a parade that accompanies such events in other cities around the world.
Evie Wu, Shanghai Pride’s director, told Reuters that about 6,000 people were expected to attend. For the 10th anniversary next year, organizers hope to hold Pride events in other cities, including Beijing.
“People have told us that attending Pride has led to them accepting themselves, that they have a community and that they are not alone. That’s inspired us to continue,” Wu said.
It is hard to gauge the degree of popular acceptance of homosexuality in the world’s most populous nation.
Sexologist Li, who has backed parliamentary proposals to legalize gay marriage that went nowhere, said a survey she had conducted in 2007 showed many people simply had no view about homosexuality.
“Since ancient times there’s been no particular feeling that homosexuality is wrong, unlike in Christianity or what the Bible says,” she said.
But Chinese society had always placed huge importance on the family line, and that is what has driven opposition to homosexuality, Li said.
“It’s always family first, happiness second.”
Li’s old friend Wang is now in the Communist Party’s elite ruling inner core, and heads the powerful anti-corruption watchdog, which did not respond to requests for comment about her conversation with him when he was Beijing’s mayor.
While the government often turns a blind eye to gay events, the Communist Party has intensified a crackdown on civil society since President Xi Jinping took office four years ago.
Last month, police in the city of Xian briefly detained nine gay activists, saying the city did not welcome gay people, after they tried to organize a conference.
Unbowed, the same group is organizing an event in Chengdu this month, encouraged by support on social media.
One of the organizers, who asked to be identified only as Matthew, said he was nervous the Chengdu event could draw official attention.
“I’ve held events in Chengdu before, and I’ve never had any official notification I either can or cannot do this,” he told Reuters. “Even with the Xian event, before it all went down we didn’t get any sort of message.”
Still, on the weekend before Taiwan’s marriage decision, gay activists held a packed fund-raising event at a Beijing bar complete with lip-synching drag queens that went off without a hitch.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs, which technically has oversight over civil issues like marriage, declined to comment on questions from Reuters about the possibility of same-sex marriage or whether there was an institutionalized problem with homophobia in China.
Activists say the government vacillates on its attitudes toward homosexuality, pointing out that gay clubs and bars are often left alone while gay dramas are banned on television.
Overtly hostile opinions do surface publicly from time to time.
Zeng Weizhu, a philosopher at China’s Shanxi Agricultural University, wrote an open letter to the people of Taiwan last month on the Confucian Net website denouncing the marriage decision as a “disaster” perpetrated by youth “ignorant of worldly affairs”.
“Parents of Taiwan, come to the mainland! Your children and grandchildren will multiply, your life will be extended and your latter years won’t be lonely,” Zeng wrote.
The comments section underneath his letter largely scorned his view as absurd and offensive.
“Dying of laughter. Support gays and oppose discrimination,” wrote one person, using the handle “When Love Comes To Call”.