In a few months, 25-year-old Meng Yu will represent China in basketball. But there’s a catch: The team hasn’t even had its first practice.
Meng, a fundraising consultant for non-profit organizations in the southern city of Shenzhen, is part of China’s largest contingent to ever attend the Gay Games, which will be held in Paris this August. Established in 1982, the weeklong Gay Games are held every four years to celebrate and promote inclusion, with a focus on sexuality and gender. As homophobia and transphobia are pervasive in sports around the world — including in China — the games give participants a chance to compete in athletics without fear of ostracization, bullying, or violence. Around 90 Chinese athletes are expected to attend this year’s Gay Games — significantly more than four years ago, when only one Chinese athlete participated.
“Those who can’t come out in China can still be their authentic selves in another place,” Meng, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” tells Sixth Tone.
Meng first heard of the Gay Games last year, when Hong Kong was selected as the host for 2022, becoming the first city in Asia to host the event. Meng — a longtime amateur basketball player who describes their on-court style as tenacious and cool-headed — wanted to join the women’s basketball team for the Paris competition but was told it did not exist. Meng then took the initiative to become captain and manager of the trailblazing team and began recruiting players.
Basketball is hugely popular in China, and the women’s national team is ranked 10th in the world by the International Basketball Federation. Given the sport’s large fan base, Meng was confident that they’d have no trouble filling the team roster. But while there has been plenty of interest, the team’s retention rate has been low, which Meng attributes in part to the high cost of travelling to the games. Each player will have to pay at least an estimated 10,000-yuan ($1,560) for airfares, accommodation, visas, and food. The team currently has seven players aged 20 to 28, enough to join the competition; if some drop out, the remaining athletes will be combined with players from other countries who also don’t have the numbers to compete, so they can all still participate. But the challenges in keeping the team together — and the fact that the players live all over China, from eastern Shandong province to southern Guangdong province — mean they still haven’t practiced together or even met face to face. Instead, Meng encourages the team to practice on their own on weekends.
Meng Yu poses for a photo on the basketball court in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2012. Courtesy of Meng Yu
Another obstacle preventing players from signing up is the pervasive fear of coming out, according to Meng, who also founded a nonprofit called Love & Voice that holds events to support and raise awareness about LGBTI issues. Although traditional Chinese attitudes toward the LGBTI community appear to be softening, many individuals report that they remain closeted for fear of social backlash and disappointing their parents. Meng isn’t worried about that — their mother and father, who live in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, aren’t bothered by their sexuality. Instead, Meng’s parents are mainly anxious about their child going overseas. To prevent them from worrying about their safety, Meng doesn’t plan to tell them about the Paris trip until right before departure.
It’s a different story for teammate Xia Xu, a 22-year-old Shanghai law student who co-founded Love & Voice with Meng. Xia is a friend of Meng’s and was personally recruited for the team a few months ago. Unlike Meng’s mother and father, Xia’s parents — who also live in Jiangxi — have very traditional ideas of marriage and sexuality. They oppose her LGBTI activism, believing that her identity is just a phase. “I [present] separate images [of myself] to my parents and to my friends,” Xia notes, adding that her parents would rather avoid asking questions than acknowledge her role as an LGBTI rights advocate. In the past, Xia worked to get Chinese textbooks amended so they no longer referred to LGBTI people as mentally ill. Although she has already come out to them, she doesn’t plan to tell them about the Gay Games until she returns from competing.
But as a full-time graduate student, Xia might not make it to the Games due to the cost. She’ll decide whether to go to Paris based on the results of the team’s crowdfunding efforts; if they are unable to raise enough money, she will stay home and donate her funds to another teammate.
Xia is optimistic about how the upcoming Gay Games in Paris and Hong Kong will affect Chinese attitudes toward the LGBTI community. According to Xia, the general Chinese public often equates homosexuality with HIV, so she’s hoping the increased media attention around the Games will show the community in a more positive and less stigmatized way.
Women practice basketball in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, March 7, 2018. Hu Yuanjia/VCG
Given the restrictions on parades and public demonstrations in China, Xia is enthusiastic about the prospect of attending an event celebrating LGBTI identity. But to her, the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals from all over the world is even more important. Xia hopes that being surrounded by passionate advocates will help her stay motivated about activism: “Just to remind myself who I am, what position I’m in, and how lucky I am to be part of this,” she explains.
Meng hopes the presence of a substantial Chinese team at the Gay Games will help encourage closeted Chinese people to come out. At first, Meng’s interest in the Games mostly revolved around the chance to play basketball internationally. But as their involvement deepened, they realized that China’s increased participation was about a lot more than just basketball — it was also an opportunity for the LGBTI community to express themselves authentically and to represent themselves in a positive light.
“I think that only when the LGBTQ+ community comes out in all fields, whether in economics, politics, or sports, and only when more people see that we really exist in Chinese society, then society will become more inclusive,” they say.
Parade attendees hold a rainbow banner at the annual Pride march in Hong Kong, Nov. 7, 2015. Bobby Yip/Reuters
Nevertheless, Meng remains skeptical about the Gay Games’ effect on China as a whole. They keep their expectations low, their optimism tempered by their experience of the complex, difficult reality of dismantling prejudice. Heteronormativity is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, but Meng says if people don’t come out, then mainstream expectations of sexuality will go unchallenged — creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Unlike in many Western countries, where stereotypes label athletic women “lesbians,” Meng believes that — despite having many athletic friends who identify as lesbians — the same stereotype “does not exist in the context of Chinese sports because everybody is in the closet.”
“We cannot change the mainstream views of queer culture in China by only participating,” Meng says. “We are just trying a different way to express ourselves, to let the mainstream see that there is another possibility: for queer culture, for sports, and for LGBT movements.”
Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.
(Header image: E+/VCG)