Gay Chinese find a place to be themselves on ‘Rainbow Cruise’ to Vietnam

Workshops, talks and advice on LGBT issues are on offer during five-day return journey from Shenzhen to Da Nang. With more than 1,000 gay Chinese and their families on board the ship, it’s also a place for some to come out

Phoebe Zhang

On the deck of a cruise ship in southern China, two grey-haired men stood in silence, shoulders touching, looking out to sea, as other passengers bustled on board and settled in for the journey to Vietnam.

Among them was Yang Yong, a 35-year-old banker who boarded the Costa Atlantica with his elderly parents. He told them he got a cheap deal – his mother was pleased, but his father was less enthusiastic. For Yang, it was important that they join him, so he did not say much about the trip. They thought it was just a family holiday.

Aged in their 70s, Yang’s parents had been worried about their unmarried son, even arranging blind dates for him in the hope he would meet someone and settle down.

Sitting with them after breakfast on the second day, Yang dropped the bombshell.

“I want you to know, this will have an impact on our lives,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I thought about not telling you, but I want us all to live together in the future, so I have to say it.”

His mother asked if he was ill. His father asked if he was attracted to men.

More than 1,000 gay Chinese and their families joined the cruise from Shenzhen to Da Nang and back. Photo: PFLAG China

They were on the “Rainbow Cruise” from Shenzhen to Da Nang, along with more than 1,000 gay Chinese and their families. During the five-day return voyage, they could attend workshops, talks and activities including speed dating on board the cruise ship, and get support and advice on LGBT issues. It was also a place for some, like Yang, to come out.

In its third year, the annual event in June was organised by PFLAG China, an NGO based in Guangzhou that supports the LGBT community, their parents and friends. It is held on a cruise ship because it is difficult to find a venue for a mass LGBT event in mainland China, where homosexuality is not openly discussed.It was illegal until 1997 and was removed from an official list of mental disorders only in 2001. Attitudes towards homosexuality remain generally closed in Chinese society, in part due to a traditional Confucian emphasis on marriage and having children. Although the LGBT community is estimated at 70 million people and vibrant gay scenes do exist in the mainland’s large cities, for many it is a struggle to be accepted by their families and society. Stories are rife of people being forced to have so-called conversion therapy or entering into sham marriages.

‘Like a utopia’

PFLAG China’s executive director Hu Zhijun, who is also known as Ah Qiang, said the cruise ship event aimed to give people a safe place to be themselves.

“Many gay people cannot be their true selves because of discrimination, so we want to create an environment where they can at least experience being themselves for a little bit,” Hu said.

Previously, group commitment ceremonies have also been held during the cruise, but not this year as the NGO did not want to attract attention from the authorities, given the heavy controls around any issue deemed sensitive.

On the boat though, sexuality and relationships were openly discussed. At the buffet, one man could be heard asking another when he first realised he was gay, and if his parents knew.

Another participant, who did not wish to be named, said the cruise was “like a utopia”.

“It’s the only place in China where you don’t have to stay in the closet,” he said.

The cruise aimed to give people a safe place to be themselves. Photo: Andersen Xia

The theme for this year’s cruise was “Be yourself, discover a brand new world”. For Yang, it was inconceivable that he could “be himself” when he was younger, a time when he felt ashamed of being gay and wanted to keep it a secret. But that all changed after he moved to Guangzhou for work eight years ago and came across PFLAG China.

“I was talking to one of the mothers at a picnic [organised by the NGO] and she just told me, ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of, dear. Being gay isn’t anything to be ashamed of’,” he said.

Yang’s parents were born in the Mao Zedong era, when homosexuality was seen as a crime or an illness – his father told the story of a gay colleague who was convicted over the “rape of another man”, something that had stuck in his mind for decades.

Even now, Yang said he would not have told his parents he was gay had they not put pressure on him to get married. He did not know how to tell them, until someone suggested he take them on the cruise.

It was a difficult day. Yang’s mother broke down, calling it a bolt from the blue. At first his father was calm, comforting his mother, and saying that as long as their son was happy they should leave him be.

But it was clear he was struggling with the idea too. They went to a talk together, but Yang’s father did not stay long, saying it felt like he was being recruited for a pyramid scheme.

Support at sea

At a workshop run by parents who have accepted their gay children – PFLAG China volunteers who provide support to other parents – they heard the story of a father who had wanted to change his son “back to normal”, despite their advice. The father was devastated after his son went away on a trip and never returned – he had taken his own life.

Sitting together after the workshop, Yang’s mother, a small and quiet woman, dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, saying she had found the parents’ stories moving, but she worried about her son and what would happen if he did not have children. “Who will care for him when he’s old?” she asked.

Yang’s father, a stern figure, was convinced his son had been influenced by the media, and quoted Mao to make his point. “Chairman Mao said the media serves as propaganda, influencing and guiding people’s minds and opinions. Shouldn’t the media report fewer LGBT stories, so people can stay away from this path?”

The volunteers were supportive, telling Yang his parents would need time to get used to the idea.

Dong Wanwan, a volunteer with PFLAG China in Shenzhen, said it was essential to work on developing a stronger bond between child and parents.

“That relationship is the key,” Dong said. “If parents are willing to accept and love their children, they can move on much faster [after their child comes out].”

The crowd joins in, waving rainbow flags, during a performance on the final day of the cruise. Photo: PFLAG China

At a closing ceremony on the last day of the cruise, Yang and his parents were among hundreds listening to Hu giving a speech about community support and family bonds. In the packed theatre, Yang was overcome with emotion as he listened, and felt like he was no longer alone. A singer performed Rainbow, by Taiwanese pop diva A-Mei, about accepting “all sorts of love”, and the crowd joined in, cheering and waving rainbow flags, as he sang Courage, by Malaysian star Fish Leong.

It was an empowering experience for Yang to be part of the LGBT community on the cruise, but weeks later, his parents had not completely given up the idea that he might “change his mind”.

But he said it was a gradual process, and after speaking to volunteers on the cruise, they had become a lot more accepting. His mother wanted to meet other parents of gay children, and one day – out of nowhere – his father even had some advice for him: “You should get a boyfriend.”

Source: South China Morning Post

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