Xiao Li, the pseudonym of a female survey participant, is a college senior who has a sunny disposition, a love of fashion, a boyfriend who is crazy about her, and a close male friend. The latter is not a “blue confidant,” as Chinese women sometimes call their platonic male friends, nor is he her male guimi, another common term for a close friend. Rather, he is her “gaymi,” a pun on guimi that roughly means a gay best friend.
Traditionally, Chinese gender norms placed significant restrictions on contact between men and women. As these customs have faded, however, it has become increasingly socially acceptable for men and women to develop close friendships with one another. The term “gaymi” not only highlights the willingness of more and more Chinese to step outside rigidly defined gender boundaries, but also connotes a woman’s acceptance of a man’s homosexuality, a sexual orientation that is still largely taboo in China.
Nowadays, it is relatively common for female Chinese writers to laud the benefits of having a gaymi and recommend that more women find their own. In July 2006, the Chinese magazine, Sanlian Lifeweek, published a piece arguing that in the United States, “every woman wants to find a gay friend. They’re smart, attractive, attuned to the needs of others, have a good attitude, a great sense of style, and give the best fashion advice.” Today, discussions about the supposed benefits of having a gaymi are common on Chinese social media networks.
On social media, gaymi are portrayed as fashionable, emotionally sensitive, and understand both male and female needs. During interviews I conducted for my research, many women echoed these views. One interviewee said that gaymi offer a better chance of establishing a lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex, one that is different from her friendships with other women.
As the Chinese public grows increasingly open-minded toward sex and gender issues, more and more women have begun searching for strong interpersonal relationships based purely on mutual affinity. At the same time, notions of the ideal man, whether as a lover or a friend, have begun to change. Chinese women are frequently embracing male idols that shun traditional values of machismo and virility. This growing appreciation of emergent masculinity demonstrates the power women wield as consumers and tastemakers, and is also driving a shift in gender norms.
The main reason why so many women view gay men as the ideal friend is because they think that gay men have gentler dispositions. Men who are sweet-tempered and attuned to the emotions of others — character traits that, in Chinese, are commonly described as nuannan, “warm guys” — are seen as highly desirable among a growing number of women.
However, some women — and indeed some gay men — have expressed reservations about stereotyping gaymi with the above characteristics. One gay man I interviewed, who has maintained a close friendship with a woman for many years, told me that while he respected gender differences and personal choice, he opposed the way gay men are labeled in the Chinese mass media. “If a straight man had been through a lot, they would be more considerate, too,” he told me.
Many women also believe gay men are easier to get along with than straight men. Pinned down by heteronormative gender roles that vaunt straight men as the ideal, both women and gay men have been cast as the social “other.” Many women tell me that compared with their straight male friends, they feel “safer” having physical contact and more comfortable talking about taboo subjects, such as their sex lives, with gay men. Women who describe their gaymi in this way usually say that they enjoy being able to have a relationship with a member of the opposite sex without any of the “drama” — that is, sexual attraction, harassment, and envy, whether it be real or imagined.
More broadly, the global influence of Western gay culture is widely seen as a liberating and progressive force for sexual minorities in China and other developing countries. Yet at the same time, individuals who openly support equal rights for sexual minorities sometimes look for a way to visually display this for others.
This form of virtue signaling is common in China too, where many of my interviewees say that having a gaymi is “cool”: His presence not only signals how broad your friend group is, but also shows that you are at the cultural vanguard. This may make it seem as though women are accessorizing gay men for social reasons, a habit that has undermined the emotional basis of some friendships. But such attitudes do still speak to the fact that women are gradually internalizing their belief that it is morally right to accept homosexuals on their own terms.
The word “gaymi” hints at potentially widening interpretations of how friendships are established and maintained between men and women, as well as between members of the gay and straight communities. I hope that in the future such close friendships will be based more on sincerity, and less on ulterior motives. At the same time, I remain optimistic that they will help to normalize homosexuality among the wider Chinese public.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: E+/VCG)