Ten years ago, whenever Aosi — an English teacher at a university in northeastern China — said the word “gay” in class, he was always careful to accompany it with what he remembers as a “look of incredulity.” It wasn’t that he couldn’t believe anyone could be interested in a same-sex relationship. Rather, he himself was gay and trying to deflect suspicion with a deliberately homophobic reaction. These days, however, he says he no longer feels the need, as his students seem generally accepting of homosexuality.
Aosi’s — to protect his identity, I’ve given him a pseudonym — changed outlook reflects a broader shift toward acceptance of sexual minorities at Chinese universities and colleges. But this opening-up has its limits. Over the past year, I’ve interviewed 40 gay men who either currently teach or previously taught at Chinese universities to see how they approach issues related to homosexuality in their classrooms and research. Their answers reveal that China’s gay male college teachers still face real risks when discussing or researching homosexuality, even as they make use of multiple strategies to challenge Chinese higher education’s dominant heteronormativity.
For many male gay teachers, one of their preferred ways to bring up LGBT issues in class is to tell stories about well-known gay figures within a given professional field. Teachers of computer science will bring up Alan Turing’s experiences in class, for example, while art and design teachers might mention the sexualities of certain well-known artists or analyze homosexual themes in famous artwork. One art teacher told me that, when he teaches students about the gay themes found in ancient Greek art, he “deliberately leads (the discussions) in a positive direction” in order to break down negative stereotypes about homosexuality.
This cautious, indirect approach reflects the wariness of many gay teachers in China. Many are concerned that bringing up homosexuality or expressing their own opinions will expose their own orientation, open them up to discrimination from their students and peers, or cause a student backlash. This is no idle fear. Gay teachers are acutely aware of the pressure and control exerted by school leaders over teaching content — including through unified control over textbooks and random spot checks.
One common strategy for dealing with these pressures is to maintain what one interviewee called a “neutral and objective” standpoint whenever homosexuality comes up. One teacher explained: “I’m absolutely neutral in class — I won’t advocate acceptance; I just talk about the phenomenon.” At the same time, he includes photos of well-known Chinese scholars and gay rights activists such as Li Yinhe and Zhang Beichuan in his presentations, introducing their views as a way to indirectly express his own support for gay rights.
When talking to students about homosexuality, many gay teachers opt to mention it only in passing. Although they often want to say more — and they think that they should — they’re afraid to do so. As such, they must strike a balance between their sense of mission and more practical concerns.
One vice dean of international affairs told me he introduces the protections enjoyed by the LGBT community at universities abroad as a way to counter the stigmatization of sexual minorities in a moderate and approachable way. Others find that the role of “class advisor,” similar to a homeroom teacher, gives them an opportunity to talk to students about love, marriage, and life choices while challenging discriminatory attitudes and guiding students toward acceptance of the gay community.
This conflict between reality and their own sense of mission is even more prominent when it comes to their research work. One professor who has published research on homosexuality told me that he had chosen to abandon the subject. “If you do too much research on homosexuality, then you’re exposing your orientation,” he said. “I still care what other people think.”
Chinese society has become somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality in recent years. But in traditional Chinese culture, teachers are still seen as “moral role models.” As such, few gay teachers are willing to come out publicly. Although they are less likely than before to be officially penalized for coming out, doing so still opens them up to discrimination in the workplace and across academia.
But when an LGBT student or research subject confides in them, it can be hard to keep up the façade. “How can I hide behind a mask when others bear their soul to me?” one interviewee asked. “If a participant in the study asks me about my sexual orientation, can I choose not to answer?” These contextualized problems pose a real challenge to gay scholars of queer studies.
In addition to pressures directly related to their identities, gay university teachers in China have more general concerns about the viability of queer studies as a career choice, as the field remains a marginalized subject in Chinese academia. Specifically, they worry that they, too, will be marginalized if they specialize in it. Some of my interviewees complained that it’s difficult to get their papers accepted for review by Chinese academic journals, and even if they do, it does little to advance their careers.
Meanwhile, the people in charge of allocating national research funds have little interest in funding queer studies. “If you apply to study this subject, it’s practically impossible to receive (state) funding,” one interviewee told me.
The National Social Science Fund is one of China’s most prestigious national-level research grants. In the militant terms of the fund’s mission statement, the research it supports should “persevere in focusing its assault on great real-world problems.” However, because official policy still does not generally pay enough attention to the plight of sexual minorities, and the mainstream media is cautious when reporting on such issues, queer studies continues to lack legitimacy within the mainstream academic system.
Faced with a restrictive academic environment, many gay teachers choose to keep a low profile rather than abandon their research completely. In the words of one teacher: “When you’ve published 50 papers and five of them are about homosexual studies, then it’s not a problem — no one will question your identity (sexual orientation).” Some scholars limit their research exposure, such as by not bringing papers to large academic conferences. Others are careful about what words appear in their resumes and publications. For example, the term “queer” — ku’er in Chinese — is generally safer than “homosexuality,” or tongxing lian.
Publishing internationally is one way Chinese scholars can enhance the academic legitimacy of queer studies. Wei Wei, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, is one of the country’s few openly gay university teachers and a well-known scholar of queer studies. He earned his Ph.D. in the United States before returning to teach in China, where he has published a series of papers in international academic journals about homosexuality in China. Wei’s outstanding international publishing record has earned him a high academic reputation in China, and his research received funding from China’s Ministry of Education from 2015 to 2018.
Wei’s story is encouraging, but it should be noted that publication in English is often a kind of privilege, one restricted to those who have earned doctorates abroad. For researchers who don’t have the ability to write in English, the channels for publishing research on queer studies remain narrow. If China is to increase the visibility of gay issues inside and outside the ivory tower and give queer scholars fairer opportunities, the Chinese-language academic community needs to become more accepting.
The experiences of gay teachers in the workplace can help us understand the heteronormative reality of Chinese higher education, as well as how the current environment continues to hinder the teaching of queer studies specifically, and gender and sexual equality more broadly.
The good news is that many gay teachers — including those still in the closet personally or professionally — are still doing their best to improve awareness of this important issue. But they shouldn’t have to do it alone. Chinese university leaders should build campuses that are more queer-friendly and ensure that their LGBT staff and students can live, study, and teach free from discrimination and fear.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: AsiaPix/VCG)