Visibility of Gay People Reflects Changes in China

Howard French, former New York Times’ Shanghai bureau chief, returned to the city this summer and noted changes on the streets:

As this society rapidly grows richer, its social fabric and mores have been changing in ways far more dramatic than even the physical landscape, and sexual choice and expression are arguably in the leading edge of this upheaval.

Places like Shanghai, an island of particular affluence, provide a privileged bird’s-eye view of the changes under way. When I lived here between 2003 and 2008, the public emergence of gay men became an increasingly evident fact of daily life. For the most part, at least as far as an anecdotal sense of things could confirm, though, open same-sex relationships among females here lagged far behind.

Returning to Shanghai each summer since then has sharpened my awareness of incremental social change. Last year, I noticed apparently lesbian couples for the first time, in any substantial number. I have vivid memories, in particular, of dinner one night in a favorite restaurant, where two nearby women in their late 20s and dressed as professionals engaged in ever more passionate embraces.

There were other scenes observed like this that I tucked away and made little of until I returned in June and immediately began encountering examples of public intimacy between women. I also began noticing the far greater prevalence of what I’ve thought of as masculine styling by women, which Chinese friends say parallels the emergence of what they call a unisex style that has become very popular among young men.

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