Science & Technology

Gay Cathay


Before April of this year, mainland China's gay population was crazy; now it's not.

Chinese gays haven't changed, but the Chinese Psychiatric Association has: Psychiatrists in China no longer classify homosexuality as a pathological condition. Having been insane by decree, the gays and lesbians of the world's most populous nation are now made normal by dint of category.

The West can spare itself a sense of enlightened superiority, as it was not very long ago—the 1970s—that a similar category shift occurred here. Before that, homosexuals were often institutionalized by their families, their Oedipal complexes scrutinized, their toilet training and dreams relentlessly analyzed in hope of a talking "cure." The professional literature of "inverts," from Krafft-Ebing forward, is today piled high in the West's second-hand bookstores.

Communist dictatorships, for their part, commonly jailed gays as criminals. In China's case, there was no law against homosexuality; police would arrest them as anti-state "hooligans." China eliminated "hooliganism" as a criminal category in 1997. Indeed, that nation appears to be in a fit of officially recategorizing its social life. But there are never too few criminal categories for a state intent on targeting its citizens, and China's government continues to regard unwelcome political opinions and even Falun Gong practices as signs of mental illness requiring forced treatment. In fact, China's network of police-run psychiatric clinics is reportedly expanding.

Interestingly, the Internet appears to have played a role in the emergence of China's gay community. According to press accounts, there are some 250 gay-oriented Internet sites in China. China's traditional culture allows its young adults minimal privacy and independence, but the Internet has given them a way to find and establish a broad-based community. As one Webmaster told the Los Angeles Times, "Unlike in the United States, a lot of people feel greater pressure [to escape isolation] because they don't have the economic means to be independent." A growing number of China's homosexuals are now living in gay communities spurred by new technology.

China's new view of its gays and lesbians is limited to those who accept their sexual identities. Those who are unhappy about their desires will still be classified as mentally ill. However, it is unclear what treatment China's psychiatrists will offer them.