Vadim, a young 20-something Russian living in Beijing, is telling me about the unique way his sexuality was revealed to his family back home. “Coming out to my mom was kind of an accident,” he says. “We were Skyping and I’d left the room when my boyfriend told her without my permission… She was angry at first, but, after some time, she then accepted it.”
Having lived in Beijing for three years, Vadim, a teacher, tells me that “the distance helped,” referring to the difficulties young gay men and women in Russia face when being open about their sexuality.
“A friend who came out here a year before I did told me fantastic stories [about Beijing’s gay scene]. So I decided to come here to study and never left.”
Vadim is now part of a small but growing community of openly gay Russians in Beijing. Estimates from those we speak to put the figure between 200 to 500. In China’s capital Vadim can be frank about his sexuality in ways that might result in violent attacks at home.
“I know stories,” he says. “Gay guys just walking through the squares and getting beaten. Not by police, but by young men just looking for people to beat.”
In 2013, the Russian government passed a law criminalizing ‘gay propaganda’. Opposition to the law from the LGBT community incited a rash of widely-reported homophobic violence. A Pew Research Center report in 2013 found that 74 percent of Russians believe that homosexuality should not be tolerated by society.
“I enjoy living outside of Russia because it’s so conservative there,” Vadim admits. “I feel more free being gay here in China than I do in Russia. Lots of people who work at [LGBT-friendly Russian nightclub] Chocolate are gay: waiters, singers, dancers, creative people. All Russian gay people know each other, they stick together.”
Another member of Beijing’s gay community, Angel, moved to China from Vladivostok along with her girlfriend in 2011.
“We noticed that Chinese people were more tactile, especially towards foreigners. There was no need for [my girlfriend and I] to hide.” She tells me that if people questioned why two girls shared a single room, they would simply reply that they were sisters. “It’s common for lesbians. It’s a kind of mask.”
The feeling of being protected by a sense of “foreignness” is shared by many of the Russians I speak to. There’s a different set of rules. “You’re already strange [as a foreigner],” Vadim jokes. “So you can wear whatever you want.”
Angel, who has adopted a “butch” or more masculine style of dress, says that in Russia there remains a permanent risk of physical violence and intimidation due to her look. In China, however, her dress sense is rarely afforded so much as a second glance. She attributes her country’s culture of homophobia to a strong tradition of Orthodox Christianity, and tells me of a homophobic incident that occurred when she was out with ten female gay friends.
“We were just walking around town, not drinking or causing trouble, but it was obvious that we were gay – some of us were kissing. We were detained for amoral behavior, made to pay fines and subjected to lots of aggression. They threatened to throw us in jail.”
Life in China’s more secular society has allowed her a far greater sense of freedom, though she continues to exercise caution. “Here I’m quite free, I can do many of the things I want, but I would rather not reveal my sexuality in the workplace, for fear of discrimination.”
Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, and although there is an active gay scene in Beijing – exemplified by openly gay nightclubs like Destination and Funky – to be gay in China remains somewhat taboo. A 2014 report by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) pointed to an official culture of “not encouraging, not discouraging, not promoting”, with public opinion regarding non-traditional sexual orientation and gender identity ‘remaining predominantly negative’.
A recent video made by the UNDP, Public Opinions on LGBT, in which Beijing residents are invited to share their views, reveals a far greater degree of general ignorance than it does any sense of outward homophobia.
“I think gay men in China are so effeminate. I’ve never seen a foreign gay man so effeminate. I’m not homophobic I just think they are repulsive,” says one young man. “They should be more normal.”
“They have their own social circles,” adds a young woman. “It’s hard for us normal people to get it. So we don’t know much about them.” A Russian student at Renmin University, Bulat, tells me that as a member of Beijing’s international community, he feels sheltered from societal norms.
“There’s less pressure than back home,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone when I arrived here. The international community [at my university] made it easier to come out. We’re all foreigners living here in China. We don’t belong to Chinese society. You get treated equally.”
He is optimistic that the situation can improve in Russia, but is content with living in Beijing for now. As with Vadim, he found that coming out to relatives back home was met with hostility. “One friend that I told immediately started shouting: ‘No, no, no! Why, Bulat? I’m sure in a few years you’ll have a beautiful kid… a beautiful wife.’”
Damon, who is originally from Ukraine, worked at nightclubs and restaurants in Beijing for three years before enrolling in a local university. “In China I can start a new life. I feel much safer because I’m foreign. I can walk in the street and hold hands with my boyfriend. It’s OK with Chinese people, they understand it.” But he has reservations about his long-term prospects in Beijing and talks freely about the frustrations of living in the capital.
“I studied law back home, but Ukrainian law is useless here. Why did I spend three years working as a manager of a nightclub, after doing a law degree?”
He is even less enthusiastic about going home than Bulat, although he has an additional reason: the ongoing violent conflict in Ukraine.
“I miss home, of course, but it’s safer to be here. Ukraine doesn’t have a law like [2013’s propaganda law] in Russia, but many guys feel discriminated against. They can’t be open and they can’t express themselves. They can’t get a job or make friends. Here I’m a young man, working and studying. I want to be with men and it’s my choice. Nobody can tell me what to do.”
His blasé attitude highlights the relative comfort enjoyed by Beijing’s foreign gay community. But such acceptance may not be reflected in the local scene, according to the director of Beijing’s LGBT center, Xiaotie.
“Public homophobic discrimination and violence is quite rare in Beijing, though widespread acceptance is still a long way off,” she says, illustrating the point by revealing that she keeps her role at the center secret from certain family members, telling them that she works for an environmental NGO.
In August of this year, the People’s Daily reported that a man was attempting to sue a Chongqing clinic after it allegedly used electric shock therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Xiaotie, who demonstrated outside the Beijing court where the trial was heard, was quoted by the paper as saying that many gay men and women accept conversion therapy due to pressure from their family and in fear of public discrimination.
“Many people think that foreigners do have a different set of rules out here,” Xiaotie tells me. “I’ve heard people say that compared [to the experiences of] gays from Eastern Europe or Africa, China is like heaven. But I’m not sure I wholly agree. I’ve met some foreigners who don’t want to be openly gay at the Chinese companies they work for.”
Angel tells me that she has come across instances of verbal abuse towards gay people in Beijing, but remains very much happy with life in the capital. “My sexual orientation is just additional information.” Vadim, too, remains happy in China. “I still feel like an outsider here, but Chinese people are kind and friendly and I love the culture. For me returning to Russia would be a step back.”