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Rainbow Sexuality Under the Red Flag

Same-sex relationships between men have a history of acceptance in China dating as far back as the Zhou period (1100-256 B.C.). In official records of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), 10 emperors are described as openly bisexual and are listed with the names of their lovers. In the centuries following the Han, homosexuality was generally accepted among men, so long as it didn't interfere with their Confucian duty to marry and perpetuate the family name. Partly due to the influence of Western missionaries, homosexuality was outlawed by official decree in 1740, but Judeo-Christian notions of shame never fully took root in China and the practice persisted. Under the Communists, however, homosexuality came to be seen as disruptive of the social order, and persecution of gays was sanctioned during the Cultural Revolution.

The situation has improved markedly over the past decade. In 2002, the government rescinded its 1989 edict describing homosexuality as a psychological disorder, but laws still prohibit expat magazines from talking about gay bars (described instead as bars "for the alternative set"). Time Out, a popular expat periodical, runs a monthly column that gets around the censors with a subtle header: G&L. The general populace tends to ignore the existence of gay relationships, made easier by the fact that it's considered normal for men to be physically affectionate regardless of sexual orientation. As in ancient times, many gay men still marry and have children to satisfy their parents.

The best gay club in Beijing is Destination (Mudidi; p. ###; tel. 010/6551-5138) at Gongti Xi Lu 7, south of the Worker's Stadium west gate, where the crowd revels and the beats are right. Things have turned a tad seedy in recent times, but the crowds still flock to this venue, which now includes a bar, a restaurant, and even an Internet cafe.

For lesbians, the scene is slightly grimmer. Women perceived as homosexual are often subject to harassment. In the context of Chinese patriarchy, lesbianism has never received much attention. Outside a brief appearance in the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Mansion, it is invisible in literature, and the pressures of China's skewed gender ratio -- an excess of boys brought on by age-old prejudices in response to the one-child policy -- has made many single Chinese men resentful of any reduction in the pool of potential wives.

Aside from Thursday nights at Destination, try the Feng Bar, just east of the south gate of the Worker's Stadium, on Saturday nights. As the scene is still developing, try connecting online, through Beijing's Other Attractions (www.boaevents.com), or more general websites for lesbians in Asia, such as www.fridae.com or www.utopia-asia.com.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.