Why China’s Gay Academics Feel They Must Stand Out or Stay Hidden
Since 2018, I’ve interviewed 40 gay men who either currently teach or have previously taught at Chinese colleges and universities. My aim was to discover what challenges they face as teachers and researchers and to find out how they cope with Chinese academia’s often hostile stance toward sexual minorities.
Unsurprisingly, many of my interviewees told me their sexual identities were a source of stress. School leaders often take an ambivalent view of LGBT staff, and those who choose to come out publicly must balance their desire to be accepted for who they are with the risk of discrimination from colleagues, bosses, and even students.
But not everyone chooses to strike this delicate balance. Some gay professors instead embrace their minority status and use it as a source of motivation. By outperforming their heterosexual colleagues, they seek to force their schools to recognize and accept their identities. While this approach can’t address the roots of homophobia in Chinese academia, some gay scholars are willing to bet — often successfully — that even prejudiced deans won’t dare touch their star faculty, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Song is a 35-year-old lecturer at a university in southwestern China. He has never married and doesn’t have any plans to come out at work. However, he also doesn’t care what his colleagues say about him behind his back, as his research is a crucial source of grant money for the school.
“If they want to speculate, then let them,” he said. “I bring in so much money to the school every year that they wouldn’t think about firing me.”
Some gay scholars are willing to bet that even prejudiced deans won’t dare touch their star faculty, regardless of their sexual orientation.
- Cui Le, Ph.D. student
Lin, who earned his doctorate in economics in Europe before returning to take a job at a Chinese university, is even more confident. He was one of only a handful of my interviewees who was completely open about his sexuality at work — he had even introduced his boyfriend to his department in the hopes of challenging their stereotypes about gay people.
Lin wasn’t concerned that his workmates or bosses would discriminate against him. “I wasn’t worried about my job,” he said. “I’m a pretty confident person. If the school didn’t want me, then I’d just leave and find a job somewhere that’s just as good as here. (My) confidence stems from my research abilities.”
Lin’s experiences give him reason to be confident. His boyfriend worked at a university in China’s southern Guangdong province, and Lin decided to find a job in neighboring Hong Kong to be closer to him. But when school leaders heard that Lin was thinking of leaving, they begged him to reconsider.
“The vice dean said my research was the best of any teachers they’d ever had,” Lin said. In an effort to persuade Lin to stay, his school found a job for his boyfriend in the area — and even made sure the new position wouldn’t require the man to take a pay cut. But Lin’s boyfriend believed staying in Guangdong would be better for his career, and Lin ultimately chose to go through with his resignation.
“Schools don’t care whether you’re gay or not,” Lin told me. But even he admits he was a special case. “I was always the most outstanding person at the school, so my sexual orientation wasn’t an issue. But if I wasn’t competent, I don’t think they would have kept me. It’s possible they would have discriminated against me, and some might have also used my orientation as an excuse to attack me.”
If a high level of research output can help reduce gay professors’ fear of discrimination and enhance their job security, the need to maintain this output can cause its own anxieties. Ma, a full professor at a university in southern China, is not out professionally, but he believes his colleagues and students can tell he’s gay. He said because of his sexuality, he demands more of himself.
“(I need to) teach good classes and carry out good research — to a higher standard than typical teachers,” he said. “That way I can get along with them (my colleagues) more confidently as equals.”
Wang is a teacher in the same school as Lin, but he believes his co-worker is a special case. “If it was someone ordinary, then it’s not certain,” he said. “If you have equal abilities, others will use it (homosexuality) to discriminate against you. Only if you’re extremely outstanding are you able to overcome this obstacle.”
In other words, Lin’s ability to come out and the favorable treatment he has received don’t reflect the real situation of most LGBT teachers in China. Rather, they’re privileges extended to celebrities within the research community.
For most gay university staff, their sexual orientation remains a source of stress rather than a motivational tool.
- Cui Le, Ph.D. student
For most gay university staff, their sexual orientation remains a source of stress rather than a motivational tool. Hui used to work at a university in China’s central Hunan province, where he was pessimistic about the prospects of one day coming out. “As someone of moderate talents and average qualifications, I didn’t dare come out,” he told me. “I didn’t have the courage to do it. Without the prop of academic ability, coming out would have left me at the mercy of others.”
Workplace discrimination is a serious problem for China’s gay community. Although there is no data specifically pertaining to academia, a 2018 UN report found that LGBT Chinese are less likely to come out at work than in any other context, mostly due to fears of harassment. Although none of my research participants reported experiencing discrimination, that’s largely because almost all of them refused to risk disclosing their sexual orientations.
Like many other gay teachers trying to adapt to the still-rampant discrimination in Chinese academia, the stress of remaining closeted has made things difficult for Hui. “Having such a tension deep inside is not something I want.” In the end, he opted to quit his job and move to Beijing to work for a private educational organization. For Hui, there’s much more freedom for him there. “It is freer to work outside the government-sponsored institutions. Nobody can manage me anymore.”
In some ways, the stress and pressure experienced by Chinese gay academics mirrors workplace experiences of racial minorities in Western contexts. For example, research shows that American faculty of color are expected to work harder than white faculty if they want to be treated as equals, and they feel as though they must consistently outperform their white peers.
China’s gay academics should not have to feel insecure about their professional futures just because of their sexual identities. School leaders should integrate LGBT issues into teacher training and official policy, improve teachers’ awareness of gender and sexual diversity, and avoid discriminating against candidates based on their sexual orientation.
Only when China’s campuses become queer-friendly will coming out cease to be a privilege for a select few outstanding queer academics and start to become a right available to all.
To protect the identities of the author’s research participants, all interviewees have been given a pseudonym.