Visiting anthropologist talks male homosexuality in China

Despite its taboo status in East Asian countries, homosexuality was the focal point of a talk yesterday sponsored by the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale.

A collection of roughly 15 Yale students, professors and New Haven residents packed a tight seminar room on 10 Sachem St. for the talk, titled “Activism and Shifting Identities of Self-Identified Gay Men in Postsocialist China.” The event was the latest installment in the 2011 China Anthropology Colloquium Series, a program which invites visiting anthropologists to Yale’s campus to lecture on various topics related to Chinese culture and sociology.

Tiantian Zheng GRD ’03, professor of anthropology specializing in gender and sexuality issues at State University of New York at Cortland, conducted the hour-long lecture, during which she discussed the prevalence of male homosexuality in certain areas of China, specifically in the city of Dalian, Zheng’s hometown, where she earned her master’s degree in linguistics.

“The current state of Chinese activism is still in a stage of growth,” Zheng said, noting the relatively young LGBTQ movement in the country. “Gay activism is severely undermined by the lack of independence of [gay rights groups]. The fact that they rely on government funding and support masks their tactics.”

According to Zheng’s research, homosexual groups are often only relevant when the government employs them to help with anti-AIDS propaganda movements. But this cooperation with the government does not lead to positive results for gay groups.

Zheng said collaboration with the national regime mitigates the goals of gay organizations by making gay activists dependent on governmental support. She added that this subordination of gay activists allows for the proliferation of social stigmatization of homosexuality and indirectly reinforces the connection between AIDS and homosexuality.

But she was quick to point out that the issue is not entirely focused around the central government.

Gay men in China also deal with issues of self-criticism and censure due to mainstream cultural norms, Zheng said. They often try to coat their homosexuality in public and condemn fellow homosexuals for their outspokenness, which Zheng argued forces them toward further repression under governmental and societal constraints.

But this is a rather recent shift in ideology, according to Zheng. Up through the end of the 19th century, homosexuality was fairly common, especially among members of the Chinese nobility, Zheng said. She added that it was not until the introduction of Western discourse on homosexuality that this previous perception changed.

During the discussion session that followed the talk, roughly 10 audience members expressed that they were impressed by Zheng’s research and noted that they enjoyed the material presented in the lecture.

Peter Sack ’11, an East Asian Studies major, said he was particularly fascinated by the material.

“The cultural shift is especially very interesting,” Sack said. “But the fact that there are no [lesbian] activist groups struck me the most.”

“[Zheng] said some things I haven’t heard before,” said Zelda Hughes, a 33-year-old New Haven resident at the talk. “You see self-hate in gay men in the States occasionally, but it’s not as prevalent, I think, as in China.”

Amy Zhang GRD ’15, who helped organize the lecture, said she was surprised by the discussion topic.

“We extended the invitation [to Zheng] not knowing what she’d recently done,” Zhang said. “We were just interested in [finding out about] her recent work. But I was struck by the peculiarity of the movement.”

The colloquium was also sponsored Department of Anthropology.

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