BEIJING — Apple CEO Tim Cook's recent "coming out" made big headlines, but was hardly newsworthy considering that so many well-known people in the West are open about their homosexuality. Besides other business leaders and entertainers, there are current or recent mayors of Berlin, Paris and San Francisco — Iceland's former Prime Minister, and foreign ministers of Germany and Latvia — who had all disclosed their sexual orientation. Meanwhile, a dozen countries have approved same-sex marriage, and others are on their way.

What is puzzling today is the attitudes toward gays in Communist or ex-Communist countries. Generally speaking, in the West politics is divided between the right and left, more conservative and more progressive. The left tends to think of itself as representing the interests of the underclass and vulnerable, including attention for the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals. The right, instead, is more aligned with the interests of the establishment, and tends to be more conservative about sexuality.

Communist ideology and propaganda would generally place it on the left of the political spectrum, representing society's most vulnerable. And yet in reality, in Communist and post-Communist countries, the treatment of gays has always been much closer to that of the West’s conservative right.

At the Sochi Winter Olympics Russia’s anti-gay law sparked strong protests. After Tim Cook disclosed his homosexuality, some Russians actually dismantled a monument to Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Sex as such

Meanwhile in China, and among the Chinese diaspora, homosexuals — even celebrities in the entertainment world — rarely have the courage to be open about their sexual orientation. The exceptions can be found in Hong Kong, such as the late singer and film star Leslie Cheung, or the renowned Taiwanese novelist Bai Xianyong.

Beyond the East-West cultural differences, one must therefore factor in the influence of the Chinese Communist ideology in understanding China's attitude toward homosexuality.

Chinese LGBT activists at the the 2011 Los Angeles Pride — Photo: InSapphoWeTrust

The starting point is that the Chinese Communist Party has always had a rigidly puritanical attitude toward sexuality in general. Since the Communists took over in the 1950s, sex has been publicly repressed in China, with some of the world’s most severe laws in reference to sex-related activity. For example, promiscuity involving a group of people, called "crime of group licentiousness," is a felony. Very few countries continue to prohibit the sale of pornographic materials, whereas China still enforces the Indecent Publication Act. And until the 1990s, there were cases where pimps were executed.

Homosexuality is denigrated, thus, not necessarily because it’s the orientation of a minority of people, but because it has to do with sex.

In my book Study of New China’s Discourse on Sexuality, I provide results of research conducted about the evolution of China’s official ideology toward homosexuality. I found that in the past 65 years, it has roughly transformed from being totally negative to a stance that can be described as neutral.  Politically, culturally or socially, discrimination and moral condemnation have given way to a more respectful attitude and a more inclusive stance when it comes to gay rights.

The AIDS epidemic gave new visibility to homosexuals in public life, but at the same time, homosexuality as a political issue seems to have been “kidnapped" by AIDS. For instance, when China’s CCTV state media aired its first documentary about the gay community, it was largely based around an interview of a gay AIDS patient.

It will still take a long time and much hard work for China’s homosexuals to gain true equal rights. But more and more Chinese people have begun recognize that a "harmonious society" is harmonious precisely because it is one in which different groups of peoples — Han and ethnic minorities, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual — can live together in harmony. We expect that after 65 years of detours and mistakes, gay people will finally be fully respected and that China will walk towards a much more civilized and rational society.

*Li Yinhe is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences