Chengdu is famous for three things: pandas, spicy hot pot, and a gay old time.
The capital of Sichuan province in southwest China has garnered such a reputation for its LGBT scene that some even call it “gaydu.”
But others say the moniker exaggerates the city’s queer credentials.
“It’s a little awkward to be honest, because to earn that title, [Chengdu] needs to have real cultural content, but actually it’s not like that,” says Matthew Huang, a 24-year-old gay man who co-founded LGBTI organization Milks Friends, also known as Mr. Milk & Her LGBTI Friends.
Guests sit at a table to watch a gay couple’s wedding ceremony at a bar in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Jan. 3, 2010. VCG
Huang feels that the city is relatively inclusive and open-minded, but no more so than Shanghai or Beijing — and like everywhere else in China, there are limits to what activists can do.
Chengdu is small by Chinese standards – official statistics show that the population was around 14.6 million people in 2015, narrowly ranking it among the 10 largest cities on the mainland. Compared to China’s urban hubs, such as Beijing and Shanghai, Chengdu has a reasonable number of bars, clubs, saunas, and social services catering to various age groups, social circles, and income brackets within the LGBT community.
Nationally, the cultural and political climate is improving for LGBT people, though change hasn’t reached everywhere. In recent months, China has seen legal action across a broad swath of the LGBT community, as people, for example, fight for gay marriage rights or oppose discrimination against transgender people. Still, prejudice remains.
In the past, Chengdu was known for its drag queen shows; these days, many of the old performance venues have given way to nightclubs that blend pulsing beats and strobe lights with the Chinese penchant for dice games, chain-smoking, and table service. Neon letters that spell out “fingering” and “semen” in English light up the bouncing dance floor at Max, a gay bar in Chengdu’s Dongmen Daqiao area, the city’s de facto gayborhood. Next door is a lesbian bar, Queen Bee, where dapper young tomboys mostly stare at their phones until lingerie-clad hired dancers take to the stage. On a Friday night in mid-October, both bars are humming with patrons who spill out into the street in front of the barbecue joint downstairs to continue smoking and flirting.
As far as China goes, it’s not a bad place to be gay, says Yu Fei, the chief operations officer for Tongle, a Chengdu-based nongovernmental organization that’s been running since 2002, with a focus on gay men’s health and social well-being. “It’s much better here compared to the north, where people have more conservative attitudes and traditional family structures; they’re less able to accept homosexuality,” Yu, 35, tells Sixth Tone.
Chengdu is home to a hardworking community of advocates, who work to increase LGBT visibility and acceptance in families, universities, and society at large. Many converge on the city because of its liberal and laid-back atmosphere, which Huang believes is a result of its substantial migrant population and ethnic diversity.
“Since ancient times, Chengdu has been a place where lots of people and ethnicities congregate — Yi, Zhuang, Qiang — so its inclusive nature is because it’s a diverse place,” Huang tells Sixth Tone, referring to ethnic minority groups in China. He himself moved to the provincial capital from his hometown of Luzhou, also in Sichuan province, for his final year of high school in 2009, partly because he was attracted to the city’s character.
An exterior view of the Moonflower, a lesbian bar in Chengdu owned by Yu Shi, Aug. 21, 2016. Courtesy of Yu Shi
Yu agrees that the local culture is quick to embrace differences. “Chengdu has always had an outlook of ‘live and let live,’” he says. “If someone is different or has a different life to you, it’s fine as long as it doesn’t interfere with you. It’s a liberal attitude, a principle of doing no harm.”
But Chengdu’s reputation as a gay capital only came about in the digital age, Yu says. “Even when I moved here in 2003, it wasn’t as open as it is now. There was very seldom talk of gay issues,” he remembers.
For Yu Shi, a 45-year-old lesbian originally from Yibin, a smaller city in Sichuan, it was the internet that really changed things. “It wasn’t until I was 30 that I really found a lesbian community, because someone showed me how to use [messaging app] QQ,” she says. “I was already in Chengdu by then, and I was really unhappy because all the girls I’d ever liked had ended up marrying men.” In 2002, she opened a lesbian bar, Moonflower, which is still running today.
The growth of online communities alongside physical venues has helped LGBT people in Chengdu to build connections, representation, and visibility. The increased public profile of LGBT issues was evident at Speak Out, a public forum held last month in the city, jointly organized by Milks Friends and Tongle. More than 300 people from all over China gathered to hear speakers give TED-style presentations on topics like gender-fluid identity, rethinking sex education, aging as a gay man, and asexuality.
Inside the packed venue —a theater that’s part of leading tourist attraction Jinsha Site Museum — it looked as though China’s LGBT movement had truly emerged from the underground. But later that same evening, Milks Friends notified participants that the venue for the following day’s inaugural National LGBTI Youth Conference had been changed due to a scheduling conflict with a military event at the same hotel. The hotel manager, surnamed Li, tells Sixth Tone that the venue canceled at the last minute because it couldn’t accommodate the conference, but he claims that the hotel is open to holding another LGBT event in the future.
In recent years, law enforcement’s attitude toward LGBT activities in China has proven opaque and unpredictable. “In general, it seems the government doesn’t have the time to bother with LGBT issues because they have a lot of economic targets and other priorities,” Huang says. Many advocacy organizations will work closely with government ministries on health projects, such as HIV prevention campaigns. Still, that doesn’t stop them from running into problems with public security from time to time when holding LGBT events that are open to the public.
“Public security officials rarely give us explicit permission or prohibition,” Huang says. “They can be very strict and cause quite a lot of trouble for us, but they don’t talk to us in terms of policy.” For the most part, police just want to know the particulars of an event: There might be problems if there are large crowds or connections to politics or religion.
The audience throws paper planes into the air during Speak Out, a public forum on LGBT issues, at Jinsha Theater in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 15, 2016. Courtesy of Milks Friends
Huang says that the city’s universities are becoming more restrictive for LGBT groups, pointing to the increased difficulty of organizing activities on campus. One university in Guangzhou, capital of southern China’s Guangdong province, became embroiled in controversy earlier this year after threatening to delay the issuance of graduation diplomas to two female classmates who openly declared their love for each other. In June, a court in Beijing accepted a lawsuit by a lesbian university student against China’s education ministry for its failure to take action against homophobia in university textbooks.
Activists criticize the media in Chengdu, asserting that it is largely uninterested in LGBT issues except on occasions such as World AIDS Day, which media outlets feel compelled to cover. “They’ll report on our HIV prevention programs, but they’re less open to promoting LGBT awareness,” Yu Fei says. “We often invite them to events, but they’re not responsive.” He says most of the mainstream media in China is the same, but in cities like Guangzhou, the media is more receptive to LGBT topics.
To Yu Shi, the city’s reputation as a gay capital is a misnomer that belies the progress that the LGBT community still needs to achieve. “We should think about how to develop the movement, publicize LGBT culture, and fight for legislative changes,” she says. “We need to turn toward broader society; we can’t just entertain ourselves.”
(Header image: A newly married couple toasts wedding guests at a gay bar in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Jan. 3, 2010. VCG)