‘Safe But Not Safe’: Life As a Gay Man Between China and New Zealand
Arriving in New Zealand to start my doctorate in 2017, I immediately sensed it was a more welcoming environment for LGBT people than my home country.
On my very first day at the University of Auckland, I spotted a rainbow flag hanging in the window of the international students office. A poster by the library entrance proclaimed “zero tolerance toward racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and transphobia” and my enrollment form offered an “X (diverse)” option for listing my gender. It also asked if I identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or Takatāpui — a term used by LGBT members of New Zealand’s Maori population.
According to university policy, the school collects this information to support students who are more likely to face barriers accessing and succeeding in university. It’s also used to establish the university’s “LGBTQI Takatāpui +” teacher and student network, which promotes sexual equity and diversity on campus.
Although the university’s official policies gave me a sense of belonging and security, I soon realized New Zealand was not the refuge from anti-LGBT discrimination and prejudice I had hoped to find. As an overseas student from China, integrating into mainstream New Zealand society is difficult, and much of my social life is therefore tied to the local Chinese community — a diverse mix of migrants, students, and New Zealand citizens of Chinese heritage. And unfortunately, much of this community is not very tolerant of sexual minorities.
In 2019, a “Stop Transgender Teaching in New Zealand Schools” petition was widely shared within New Zealand’s Chinese community. The petition urged the country’s parliament to remove content related to gender diversity from the sexuality education curriculum. Many Chinese parents worried the classes would implant “gay thoughts” in their children’s minds, reflecting both their anti-LGBT prejudice and a misunderstanding of how sexuality education works in New Zealand.
I experienced this firsthand when I taught Mandarin part time at an educational institution in Auckland. My students were mostly children of Chinese descent, and my boss “suggested” I not disclose my sexual identity, out of a concern that parents might not send their kids to class if they knew.
In New Zealand, where I had been certain I would be more accepted, I had somehow been forced back into the closet.
- Cui Le, Ph.D. student
In the interests of keeping my job and network intact, I begrudgingly obliged. But I couldn’t help but see the bitter irony of the situation: As a university teacher in China, I made the decision to come out, largely as a way to support LGBT students in their fight to get homophobic textbooks recalled. Yet in New Zealand, where I had been certain I would be more accepted, I had somehow been forced back into the closet.
Maintaining relationships with other Chinese in New Zealand required many such compromises. The church is one of the major social networks for Chinese in the country. During the church activities I’ve participated in, however, only heterosexual marriage and love are celebrated, and the country’s 2013 legalization of same-sex marriage is frequently derided. These remarks put me on edge. Watching the people around me freely share details about their lives, I feel like I’m hiding some shameful secret or heretical thought. Even when renting a home from a Chinese landlord, I typically keep my distance and avoid discussing my private life.
That is harder on campus, however. My fellow international students constantly ask me about my research. When I tell them I study the workplace experiences of gay teachers at Chinese universities, their reactions tend to vary. Some presume I am studying homosexuality from the outside and warn me to protect myself against the “negative influence” of homosexuality — the implication being my research could turn me gay.
Other responses come from a place of ignorance, curiosity, or even pity. “What are the causes of homosexuality?” they might ask. “There are gay teachers in China?” “Do you plan to have children in the future? It might be difficult for you to have a normal life.”
And some are downright offensive. “Why can’t you like girls?” I’ve been asked. “When you’re with your boyfriend, do you play the role of the guy or the girl?”
I can’t help but be surprised at how ignorant many Chinese international students are about sexuality and gender issues. Most of them are doctoral students who have spent years living in New Zealand, where sexual minorities are hardly invisible. Yet they still assume all people are heterosexual, men should be masculine, and getting married to a member of the opposite sex and having kids is the only “normal” path in life.
As a gay man, I must seem defective — an outlier who deviates from the mainstream. Even those who show genuine sympathy also unconsciously reveal their feelings of superiority as heterosexuals.
I typically don’t know how to react to all this. Most of them are my classmates and friends. I don’t believe they intend to offend me; I even think they support my identity and life choices.
So I can’t simply write off their remarks as homophobia. If I object or argue, it may damage my relationships with them. I also worry I could come off as overly sensitive. I would prefer to believe their attitudes stem from a lack of reflection on the ways heteronormativity operates in mainstream culture. The normalizing of heterosexuality can be insidious, and it surreptitiously influences every aspect of our lives. It takes a certain amount of critical thinking for a heterosexual person to recognize their privilege.
However, if I just quietly swallow my dissatisfaction, then the other person may never know how their words have offended me or have the chance to reflect on why what they’ve said may be inappropriate. Through my silence, I am inadvertently condoning these heteronormative beliefs.
If I’m ‘famous’ merely because I don’t hide my sexual orientation, perhaps our campus is not as diverse and friendly as it purports to be.
- Cui Le, Ph.D. student
In our everyday lives, young LGBT people suffer from frequent microaggressions like this — whether intentional or not. These indignities can be verbal, behavioral, or environmental. Those who commit or perpetuate them often have heterosexual biases — in other words, they presuppose sexual minorities are “sick” or abnormal. American scholar Kevin Nadal once described microaggressions as “death by a thousand cuts.”
Most of the LGBT international students from China I know are reluctant to disclose their sexual identity for fear of being ostracized, which makes me all the more noticeable at school — as though I am “flaunting” my sexuality. Ironically, this notoriety extends beyond the international student community to affect how I am perceived elsewhere on campus. A Maori student council chairman in my faculty once called me “famous” and the only openly gay Chinese student she had ever met.
Of course, if I’m “famous” merely because I don’t hide my sexual orientation, perhaps our campus is not as diverse and friendly as it purports to be.
Indeed, my experiences are not just a “Chinese problem.” When scholars from the University of Auckland recently surveyed LGBTTIQA+ students on our campus, they arrived at a contradictory conclusion: Many of these students said they felt “safe but not safe” at school. On the one hand, the university’s “zero discrimination” policy, as well as its rainbow stickers and posters, inspire them; on the other, they are still subject to verbal abuse and discrimination, which makes them think twice before disclosing their identity. The scholars argued that, although the university has publicly declared support for LGBTTIQA+ students through its official policies, the inclusiveness it promises has yet to be achieved.
These issues only get more complicated for international students. In one study of LGBT international students in the United States, researchers found that those coming from countries hostile to their sexual identities face unique challenges when it comes to accepting themselves, coming out, and returning home.
As a gay international student in New Zealand, I struggled for a long time over whether or not I should leave the country after graduation. The comparatively gay-friendly environment here is enticing to many LGBT international students, even those still uncomfortable publicly identifying as such. Returning home, on the other hand, often means losing official protections and going back into the closet. But it’s tricky to gain a firm foothold in a foreign country and easier to build a career in your native land.
The stress created by this internal conflict can be overwhelming. There was a moment during my first year when a combination of economic, academic, and emotional pressures made it so I couldn’t focus on my studies. I gave serious thought to dropping out.
I am therefore making an effort to establish a network for Chinese LGBT students in the hopes of helping them feel less isolated.
- Cui Le, Ph.D. student
Yet my marginal identity has also given me insights and experiences that others don’t have. During my studies at the University of Auckland, I was invited to serve as the “rainbow representative” on my faculty’s equity committee. This means speaking on behalf of and advocating for sexual minorities on campus.
I also believe my identity as a Chinese person and as an international student allows me to better understand the difficulties people of color and immigrants experience when it comes to their gender or sexual orientation. I am therefore making an effort to establish a network for Chinese LGBT students in the hopes of helping them feel less isolated.
It’s been almost three years since I set foot in New Zealand, and looking back, I’m glad I’ve held on. I haven’t forgotten why I first decided to study abroad and am currently leaning toward staying abroad after I graduate. But no matter where I end up, I will continue to speak out against the sexual injustice experienced by LGBT communities everywhere through my academic research and activism.
Now that I’ve embarked on this journey, there’s no turning back.