Out of closet, onto Internet

China: An explosion of Web sites for gays has accelerated the development of a nascent homosexual community.

February 27, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GUANGZHOU, China -- As people in this southern Chinese city prepare for bed each night, Roger Meng is just getting started. Alone at a desk in his tiny fifth-floor apartment, the 26-year-old computer whiz turns on his laptop and dives into the virtual gay community he created 18 months ago.

Eleven o'clock is rush hour at "Guangzhou Comrade" -- www.gztz.org -- Meng's Web page for Chinese homosexuals. Away from the office where their sexuality remains a secret, several hundred gay men connect to the Chinese-language site every evening, conversing in chat rooms, scanning personal ads and reading articles about homosexual life in other countries.

Listening to classical Chinese music and drinking Pearl River Beer, Meng answers e-mails and edits news stories from his correspondents around China. Friends from as far as Beijing help monitor chat rooms for politically sensitive or sexually explicit language, which might provoke censors. About 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., when the mosquitoes begin biting, Meng stumbles into bed for a few hours of sleep before rising to attend his day job at a local information technology firm.

Guangzhou Comrade -- homosexuals use the communist title to identify themselves -- is one of 150 sites for gays that have emerged in the past two years as the Internet has begun to take hold in China. Since its launch in August 1998, Meng's Web page has attracted more than 1 million visitors.

The sites' popularity illustrates how the world's newest medium is reshaping one of its oldest cultures. Collectively, the Web pages are accelerating the development of a nascent gay community in a country where homosexuality remains largely taboo and the leadership has little tolerance for independent organizations.

Through Internet sites, e-mail and bulletin boards, gay Chinese -- who are estimated to number as many as 50 million -- can communicate in ways previously impossible. They can find dates online and publish gay fiction, which would never be allowed into print. They can even make a case for civil rights.

Dilemma for the regime

This new power presents a dilemma for the Communist Party, which views the Internet as both an opportunity and a threat. The regime needs the Web to help propel the nation's economy but knows the information and communication it provides undermine its authority.

In recent weeks, Beijing has again tried to control the Internet, threatening to punish users who release "state secrets" online and requiring companies to register encrypted software. But as the gay presence has grown on the Web, China's authoritarian leaders have done nothing to stop it. The lesson in cyberspace is the same as in the rest of China today. As long as people do not directly challenge the Communist Party, they are often free to do as they wish.

"I think the attitude now is keep one eye open and one eye closed," says Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading authority on gender issues here. "The government doesn't want to directly confront them and make them angry."

Guides to gay life

The most popular gay Web sites, such as Guangzhou Comrade and Red Dust -- www.nease.net/(tilde) jwind/), provide visitors with sophisticated survival guides for homosexual life here.

Red Dust offers maps of major Chinese cities, showing where to meet gay people. Sites in Beijing range from well-known gay bars such as Half and Half to more obscure spots, including the third-floor bathroom of a shopping center across from the Foreign Ministry.

Although most Web pages are self-funded, Red Dust earns about $50 a month through advertisements, including one for King Solomon's Casino, an online gambling site.

Some sites offer links to pornography, which violates Chinese law. But in a continuing sign that the Internet is growing too fast for the government to contain, the Web pages remain open and accessible.

For many homosexuals, cyberspace has been an epiphany. Men describe tapping the words "gay" and "China" into the Yahoo! search engine and watching in awe as a new world spreads across their screens.

Most use the Web as a matchmaker. Instead of seeking sex in public lavatories, gay men with modems can search personal ads for people with similar tastes and hobbies.

Preventing social gaffes

The Internet can also prevent confusion and embarrassment in a culture where straight girls walk hand-in-hand and boys drape their arms around each other.

For Mingshui Xiushu, a well-known writer and occasional actress, attempts at dating other women were humiliating. While at drama school in Shanghai, she fell for a couple who she mistakenly thought were lesbians because they seemed inseparable and always held hands.

"I tried to kiss one of them, but I didn't succeed," Mingshui recalled recently in her studio apartment in Shanghai. "They were quite upset."

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