A lesbian couple pose for photos during a gay rights festival in Qianmen, Beijing. Courtesy of Beijing Tongyu Group
Pensioner's life shows the shift in attitudes towards homosexuality in China but experts say challenges still lay ahead. Cao Li reports
To many gay men and women, Ba Li is an inspiration. At the age of 72, he has endured decades of humiliation because of his sexuality, including being sentenced to a total of seven years hard labor. Yet it is his message of hope that resonates most with young homosexuals.
His extraordinary life charts the slow but sure transformation in Chinese attitudes towards the gay and lesbian community, and although difficulties still exist, he believes people now enjoy more freedom than ever to express their sexuality.
The pensioner, who asked to be called Ba Li - the same Chinese characters for Paris - to protect his family, invited China Daily to his birthday celebrations at a small restaurant not far from Xidan, the commercial heart of Beijing.
"I have lived through sorrows and joys," he said after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake, surrounded by several gay friends. "I am no longer considered a wrongdoer and I can finally live my life with my head held high."
At his birthday party Ba Li sang, read poems and posed for numerous photographs with friends, stopping only to look at a picture of his boyfriend he kept in his shirt pocket. Many of his guests said how much they admired him for his courage in tougher times.
"I knew I was a woman's soul in man's body at very early age," he said, his round face breaking into a broad smile. He was 16 when he started his first relationship, which lasted four years. "At the time, homosexuals were called 'rabbits' or other more derogatory names, and they met in secret at parks, bathhouses or public restrooms."
His mother refused to accept his sexuality. "One night she sneaked into my bedroom when she thought I was sleeping and checked my body for abnormalities," he said. His parents eventually forced him into a marriage that lasted less than six months. The marriage produced a daughter but he has no contact with her.
In 1977, Ba Li was sentenced to three years in a labor re-education camp after being found guilty of sodomy. He said another homosexual reported him to the police. The teacher was immediately fired from his job at a respectable high school as the supervisor felt he had "committed a crime that could never be forgiven", he said.
He was also interred in 1982 and 1984, each time for two years.
"I even suffered discrimination from other inmates in prison," he said. "Once I gave a young boy a steamed bun out of sympathy and I was beaten like a dog. It was so bad I contemplated jumping off the top of one of the labor camp buildings." When he walked free from the camp in 1986, he said attitudes were already starting to change. "I began to see more gay people being active within their circles and the word 'homosexual' was being used more by the media," he said.
Unemployed, Ba Li sold maps of Beijing to make a living and worked as a volunteer to distribute leaflets on AIDS prevention among the gay community. "Police used to take us back to the station and confiscate the pamphlets because they said they contained evil and pornographic content," he said.
Since the early 1990s, the Chinese government has become increasingly tolerant about homosexuality. By 1997, the law that outlawed sodomy was repealed, while homosexuality was officially removed from the nation's list of mental illnesses in 2001.
Li Yinhe, a renowned sexologist with the sociology institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, proposed legalizing same-sex marriages during the annual session of the National People's Congress in 2000. However, the suggestion was not publicly discussed until 2003 when policymakers met to talk about amending the Law on Marriage. They decided not to approve same-sex marriage.
Following a nationwide study, the Chinese government estimated in 2004 that the country has between 5 and 10 million homosexual men aged 15 to 49.
Despite being open among his friends, Ba Li still hides his relationship from his adopted son. Like many in the gay community, his boyfriend has a wife and family.
Attitudes may have changed but discrimination continues to be widespread, while Liu Dalin, a sexologist at the sociology college of Shanghai University, estimated about 90 percent of homosexuals have or will get married due to family pressure.