China: How Gay Academics Are Building a More Inclusive Ivory Tower

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. Read more via Sixth Tone