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Mikhail came out as a teenager. Then there was a modelling agency, migration, velvet resistance and Asian queercore. “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to Mikhail about life in Belarus and what it’s like to be a queer in China.

Mikhail’s story opens a series of stories about LGBTQ+ people.

Mikhail, 21 years old 

“Looked pretty freaky…”

Conformism, depression, patriarchy, Belarus: I came out at 14, almost immediately got burned by stigma and received an overdose of useful advice, which, of course, once again convinced me of the need for resistance. And not just internally. 

At 14, I stopped hiding. Well, I stopped hiding: at first I dyed my hair carefully, dropped very gay memes in a group chat room, had some mannerisms, looked pretty freaky, and slowly got even – that was my resistance. Yes, I was relatively lucky – in the sense that I didn’t get beaten up, but was limited to moral and ethical nerdiness – nevertheless, I tried not to cross the red line of the average person. It was scary – so there was no open confrontation at first. But I was still partisan, expressing myself by changing my appearance. For which, of course, I also got some comments, but no more.

By the way, about “scary” and Belarus. Have you heard about the “Case of Pi” and Mikhail Pischevsky? The guy was brutally beaten after a gay party. To death. By the way, the killer is already at large. And yes, it’s not the only case.

Chinese Queer Community, photo from Mikhail’s personal archive

In general, the experience of LGBTQ+ people in Belarus is different for everyone. Bringing it to a common denominator, we get something like “not very pleasant”. Or “very difficult” – especially if you are an early teenager in a family of conservatives.  But if you’re lucky, and your parents have heard something about the sexual revolution of the 60s-80s (not from Solovyov’s show), they might not have a problem accepting your otherness.

So, I continued to lonely “sitting in the closet”, occasionally peeking out from there. Yes, I won’t be judged, killed, or blown out of my mind – but why live like this? Of course, everyone decides for himself whether to stay in the closet or not. I, for example, once felt cramped. 

And I decided to fight fear. At first, a new environment helped: new, more liberal friends and acquaintances replaced the judgmental and incomprehensible ones. I was lucky: in 2014-2016, Belarus was finally hit by a wave of feminism and the queer movement (better late than never), which was accompanied by a boom of LGBTQ+ films and music (for example, Xavier Dolan’s films are great if you are 14-17 years old, La Femme – if you like all kinds of kraut and psych-rock), festivals and events on the topic. In short, we found like-minded people quickly.

And then I moved to China. 

“Transgenderism and homosexuality are historically not alien to Chinese society…”

Coming to China for the first time is hard.  Many, many people, language barrier, culture. At first, the circle of socialisation is usually limited to a couple of people from post-Soviet countries and people of Western culture. But not in my case: I lived in a city that was not the most popular, and I hardly socialised with anyone. 

The search for like-minded people started with the LGBTQ+ community: the latter is usually international (and that’s a big plus). At one time I worked in a Chinese gay club – really, it wasn’t my community. You know, all those tik tok tracks, K-Pop and other slag… It’s a completely different thing with Tinder. Here it’s enough to attach a couple of correct photos and indicate interests: who needs, he will understand. And also in the city where I lived there were a lot of LGBTQ+ bars and techno-clubs – it’s a pity, not underground ones (or I wasn’t looking hard enough).

I think that the average Chinese normie is hardly aware of the meaning of the mysterious abbreviation LGBTQ+. China is a working class country, after all. But here’s something interesting: in Beijing opera, men play female roles, it’s an old tradition (in addition, I recommend the good movie “Farewell My Concubine” starring Hong Kong queer icon Leslie Cheung). Perhaps that’s why it’s basically safe to walk around China in drag (I know what I’m talking about). Even more so – people react positively! 

Maybe it’s not just the Beijing opera. Are you aware that the emperors of Ancient China (the Khan dynasty in particular) did not bore concubines of their own sex? Transgenderism and homosexuality are not historically alien to Chinese society.

“Chinese culture is very contrasting…”

Opera, ancient Chinese traditions, and techno clubs coexist quite normally with gender stereotypes in the minds of modern Chinese people. Same-sex marriages are not legalised here, but there is a loophole: if you get married in another country, you can claim certain rights and even legally register here. And yes, same-sex couples in China can confidently hold hands without fearing repercussions – outward aggression is not accepted in the Celestial Empire (and splashing testosterone in public is frowned upon).

By the way, about testosterone. Chinese culture is very contrasting: yes, all this notorious toxic masculinity, but what do we see in mass culture? K-Pop and femboys – they are the ones shaping the matrix for Chinese youth.

Chinese Queer Community, photo from Mikhail’s personal archive

But what about traditions: young K-Pop fans are also pressured by parents, saying, “Have children, get married on time, find a decent man/job/property/’damn TV’ and so on (just like we like). And yes, it’s normal here for elderly parents to shift all care onto their children. And the final word always belongs to the elders: to the extent that offspring may not be allowed to move to another city for education, for example. “You’re fine, you don’t need to provide for your parents, you can live without money and travel” – these are the words of young residents of Hong Kong (mind you, the most liberal city in China), working for European companies.

Okay, children provide a decent old age for their parents, and that’s probably commendable. But what about personal boundaries, self-realisation? In my opinion, old age and its provision are the problem and task of the state, not the children’s.

“If you don’t lose face, you can do whatever events you want and no one will ban them…”

Although China is supposed to be a socialist country, in practice, it’s all about neo-capitalism. It’s no secret that against this background, people are actively cultivating individuality: everyone’s obsessed with creating themselves, their image, their place in society. And here’s the paradox: alienation grows directly proportional to individuality. It seems to fit into the banal “more money – less time – fewer altruistic relationships.” So internal emptiness is filled with desires, parties, and promiscuity – it’s very easy to get lost.

Gay orgies are popular here (especially in Hong Kong) and chemsex – yes, despite strict anti-drug laws. Just a reminder, in mainland China, distributing drugs carries the death penalty (which, as you may have guessed, doesn’t mean that finding drugs is difficult).

China likes to save face and dislikes unnecessary attention. Take Vogue, for example – quite popular among the LGBTQ+ community as a dance genre. Everything was fine with it until the phenomenon hit the media field because of the infamous VICE report “How China’s queer youth built an underground ballroom scene”. The thing is, while the Chinese government didn’t prohibit Vogue, the image of a “feminine man” in the media is taboo. As a result, both interviews and Vogue balls in China were banned too.

But if you’re careful, you can still do it. For example, the Chinese Pride, which kind of exists, but kind of doesn’t: you won’t see a column of people (it’s illegal!), but there are parties and companies of “not quite legal” people on the streets, rainbow flags in cafes and homes.

Chinese Queer Community, photo from Mikhail’s personal archive

A little more about maintaining appearances and “saving face”. Here, there are entire companies where all female staff go through the boss’s bed – it’s a common practice. Complaining or defending yourself (like Me Too) is not accepted: it’s too scary to lose face. Even with friends, such things are rarely discussed.

To sum up: China is not particularly cosy and even tense, but it’s quite safe for LGBTQ+ people here. Safe – despite the “family values” agenda, social taboos, the ban on same-sex marriage, and adoption of children. Of course, the bigger and more modern the city, the easier it is for the LGBTQ+ community to breathe – but we still remain underground. I’ve heard that there’s a significant LGBTQ+ community in Chengdu. There’s Tibet nearby, lots of Buddhists, and people are more open – the atmosphere is generally nicer than in eastern China. I think Buddhism is reflected in Chinese attitudes towards “original sin”. They laugh rather than judge in a kind way.

P.S. Recently, I returned to Belarus. There is no longer an LGBTQ+ community here: everyone has left.

The article was created within the framework of the scholarship program of the Free Belarus Center.