As Beijing cracks down on expressions of homosexuality, Western academics must be made aware of the plight of their gay colleagues in China, according to one of the few scholars studying the topic.
Despite an increasingly repressive environment in Chinese universities, there continues to be a “huge gap” in scholarly research on queerness in Chinese academia, according to Cui Le, a sociologist at the University of Auckland who has made it his mission to tell the world about the country’s largely invisible gay scholars.
“Queer issues have become more and more politically sensitive in recent years. Queer visibility is erased by the universities, and queer activism has become increasingly risky,” he told Times Higher Education.
While he conceded that the issue has received more attention in the region in recent years, he said that Western academics still have a “very limited understanding” of the reality for queer scholars inside China’s borders.
Cui, who uses “queer” as an umbrella term for nonnormative gender and sexual identities, believes there has been a slow and steady increase in pressure on nonconforming scholars as Chinese president Xi Jinping readies for another five-year term.
In February 2021, a Chinese court ruled in favor of a publisher that described homosexuality as a “psychological disorder” in a university textbook. That July, dozens of queer students at China’s most prestigious universities had their social media accounts abruptly closed down by the Chinese app WeChat. More recently, in July 2022, students at China’s top university were disciplined by university authorities for distributing rainbow flags on campus.
Such incidents demonstrate “systemic and institutional homophobia in China,” Cui said. Beyond being passive bystanders, universities “play an important role in perpetuating heteronormative ideologies and suppressing queer activism,” he argued.
In his research interviewing dozens of queer academics in China, Cui has observed an increasingly “hostile campus climate” forcing queer scholars and students to manage their identity more cautiously.
Of 40 non-heterosexual academics he spoke with for a paper this year, 27 had not come out to anyone on campus, 10 had told a select few people and three had gone public.
For the out academics, their sexuality was accepted by their colleagues and the leadership in their institution. Still, Cui cautioned that this did not mean that queer Chinese scholars can go public “without any concern.” Instead, he said, the ability to be publicly gay is a reflection of privilege. All three openly gay academics had Ph.D.s from Western universities and had “an excellent track record of international publications.”
“By excelling and contributing to their institution, they gained professional safety, enabling them to be out,” he noted.
But they are a minority. Many of Cui’s study participants have taken extreme measures to pass as straight, with some gay male academics marrying heterosexual or lesbian women. While being gay isn’t easy in China, it’s particularly hard for academics, given their role in society, he argued.
“Teachers are expected to promote normative ideologies in the classroom and be role models for their students. If their queer identity is exposed, queer academics may be considered abnormal or immoral, be marginalized and discriminated against in career development,” he said.
Most recently, this September, Cui published an in-depth study on the experience of a gay and HIV-positive academic—someone in a “double closet” because of the stigma associated with both. The academic, who has guarded his secret with extreme caution, trusted Cui with his story, possibly because of his interviewer’s own experiences.
Cui’s career trajectory is, if anything, a result of China’s crackdown on queerness. In 2015, as the Chinese Communist Party was beginning to tighten its control, he decided to come out, supporting a lesbian student who was suing the Ministry of Education over textbooks portraying homosexuality as a sickness.
The move was the beginning of the end of his time in China. After he disclosed his identity, Cui’s university circulated a notice detailing his punishment to colleagues.
“My bonus was reduced and I was required to write a formal document to make sure I’ll not mention any queer topics in my classroom and not talk about any queer issues on the internet,” he recalled.
Not long after, he began preparing to apply for a Ph.D. in New Zealand. In 2017, he received an offer. Now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Auckland, he feels he must do what he can to advocate from afar.
“To do this research is the only way for me to speak up for China’s gay community,” he said.
He hopes that others will join his field of study in the future, with the continued backing of universities and publishers.
“My research is supported by the reviewers and journal editor … they can make the queer experience be seen by a global audience.”