“The reason I originally wanted to study abroad was because I think the western world is more comfortable with being gay,” Lin tells SBS.
Lin is 24 and has been living in Australia for a year. Now studying at one of the countries leading universities, he presents as young, smart and diligent. For him, choosing to study aboard wasn’t just about the prestige of western academia in the Chinese job market—it was also about sexual liberation.
“In Australia I have friends who know [my sexuality], and they are okay with this, but in China normally I wouldn’t tell,” he says.
Last year 50,000 Chinese students started courses in Australia, and for a small percentage of these, Australia’s liberal views towards the LGBTQIA+ community was a key - albeit secret - factor in their choice of country.
“Here is much more open and acceptable compared to China’s environment,” Mei, who identifies as bisexual, tells SBS.
“Not only me, but I’ve also got a lot of gay friends; they say they would rather stay here instead of going back. Not only family members but the whole societal environment wouldn’t accept anything but heterosexual,” she says.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in China in 1997 and was declassified as a mental illness in 2001. While social attitudes may slowly be changing in certain parts of the country, being young and gay in the social conservative country is not easy.
Only 5% of China’s LGBTQIA+ community are out of the closet. Still forced into heterosexual sham marriages by a country that values traditional families and saving face, the push for greater visibility and queer rights is only slowly starting to happen.
Because of this, most young queer Chinese people don’t choose to tell their families. Mei is just one those making this choice.
“I don’t think I would [tell them]. If I end up with a girl I probably would, but at the moment, most of the gender I’ve been dating has been leaning towards guys,” she says, adding: “I know that my family wouldn’t take it well, they’re not that open so I will just cover it for now.”
Her story is not unique. Slowly, a rift is forming, between the older generations of Chinese parents whose values mimic traditions, and their younger, more socially liberal children.
Jiao - who also identifies as bisexual - and studies in Melbourne has experienced this first hand. She says that while her parents have lived in Australia for the last few years, they exemplify this divide.
“I guess, family is a big thing. It’s very hard for families to accept—here parents are a bit more open minded,” she tells SBS.
“In China, letting your very close family know is difficult and then letting the surrounding family know is even more difficult because you have no idea what people are going to say behind your back,” Jiao explains,
Like Mei, she has decided to only tell her parents if she gets a serious girlfriend.
“They don’t know, so they just don’t know about it and I’m not going to tell them anytime soon unless I have a serious partner who is not male. If it was really serious then I would tell them,” she says.
So what happens if you do come out?
Angela, who is now studying in Melbourne, grew up with her Chinese parents in Texas. Despite growing up in a more liberal country, they held tight to their traditional values and the hope she would marry a man.
“I remember when I came out to my dad we were in China for vacation. We were in the hotel room, and when I told him he pretty much told me he didn’t want anything to do with me,” she tells SBS, recalling that he called her “an abomination,” and “all the normal stuff that you’d expect an Asian parent to say to you”.
“Just horrible, horrible things,” she says.
For Angela, it was a refusal to live in two worlds. Outing herself to her family meant potentially being ostracised, but it was also crucial to embracing her full identity, even if it came at the cost of her parents’ approval.
“When I was young it was always about their approval, so you try to do really well academically and they’d say they were really proud of me,” she explains.
“So when I embarked on a 10-year relationship with my girlfriend, it was starting to separate from the need for their approval and say: ‘I just need to do this because I love her and this is what I want’,” she tells SBS.
Although Angela’s experience might sound like a red flag for those young Chinese considering coming out to their parents, Jiao also echoes the sentiment that in the end it might be worth it.
“I think once people are forced to go through that coming out process it’s not completely hopeless that their parents won’t accept it,” she muses. “Most of them are only children and parents do want them to be happy, the process might not be easy.”
For these young Chinese citizens, their home country has a long way to go to reach equality, but countries like Australia can provide - albeit briefly - some freedom.
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