How China’s ‘gay capital’ is resisting closure

It’s Saturday night at the HUNK club in Chengdu and men in gold lycra shorts and black boots dance on stage. They wear kimonos, in an apparent tactical compromise with new morality codes creeping into China’s “gay capital”. But across town, young women still lounge on leather sofas drinking beer at a lesbian club, while a nearby bar is hosting an LGBTQ board game night. Far from the administrative glare of Beijing, the cosmopolitan southwestern city, dubbed “Gaydu” by Chinese millennials, has long cherished its reputation as a safe haven for a community that faces stigma and widespread harassment elsewhere in the country. But activists now say the city’s permissive streak is under threat, as the central Communist leadership puts the squeeze on the few bastions of sexual freedom across the country. But Chengdu’s resilient LGBTQ community is not ready to be forced into the closet. “There is some tacit acceptance by the authorities, but it is very delicate,” said Matthew, an activist from the NGO Chengdu Rainbow, who requested use of his first name only. The recipe for survival, Matthew says, is “making small progress” rather than big political and social statements that rattle China’s hyper-sensitive authorities. The mood in Chengdu started to sour in October when the MC Club was closed after explicit photos were posted online and local media reported that HIV infections had been linked to sex parties allegedly taking place at the venue’s sauna. Some in the gay community say a spike in the number of domestic LGBTQ visitors — unable to travel overseas because of the coronavirus pandemic — drew unwanted attention from city authorities. Major gay bars in the city were temporarily shut down, ostensibly to control a public health crisis. Then, an activist told AFP, all of the city’s LGBTQ organisations were suddenly investigated.