I met Ni Dongxue in 2006, in a quiet and nicely decorated gay bar through two musician friends who played in a band there. The bar is located in the city’s Moziqiao region, a popular nightlife spot. A pioneer and recognized leader in Chengdu’s gay community, the then-thirty-six-year-old Ni graduated from Beijing Teachers’ University with a master’s degree in psychology. Ni wore heavy makeup and a bright yellow shirt. He said he visited the place every week to socialize with his friends and fans. According to the owner, Ni is known within the circle for his prettiness and his knowledge of and outspokenness about gay issues.
Liao: This is my first time here. Actually, I’ve never been in a gay bar. I used to hear so much about these underground gay bars. I have to admit it is not as secretive and mysterious as I expected. I don’t see anyone posted outside to watch for police. I don’t hear any disco music or see any rowdy dancers. People talk quietly. Classical music wafts through the air, blending nicely with the dimly lit surroundings. It’s great for conversation. I’m really impressed with the atmosphere inside this club.
Ni Dongxue: Please don’t use the word “club.” Unlike the West, we don’t have any openly gay clubs in China. All we have is a place where gay people meet regularly. Nowadays, the police pretty much leave us alone. We feel safe here. Of course, we always welcome new friends to join us.
Liao: But I’m not gay.
Ni: It doesn’t matter. Now, hold my hands and look me in the eye. Do I look like a woman? I don’t have a single trace of a man’s look. At this very moment, I don’t feel any part of me is male. So, don’t be afraid. Just hold my hands tightly. I won’t force you to kiss me or do anything. That would hurt both of us. This is a public place anyway.
Anyhow, why do you want to interview me? Do you feel sorry for me?
Liao: No, I want to write about you because I’m very sympathetic to the situation facing gay people in China, and I want more people to know about and understand the community.
Ni: For gay people, their love begins with mutual sympathy. We are certainly a minority in China. For me, it is essential for two vulnerable human beings to hold on to each other and find strength in each other. In many ways, the desire and the need to hold on to each other is like a religion in our community and has been encoded in our genes.
Liao: Did you feel like a woman when you were a little boy?
Ni: Yes. I felt that I was born into the body of a boy by mistake. Tradition and society have determined that being a boy is to be brave, decisive, and macho. I could not fulfill that role. I instinctively rebelled against this traditional role. In elementary school, I admired the fact that girls could hold hands with each other when they went window-shopping after school. I tried to hold hands with boys, but often, they pushed me away.
When I reached puberty, I constantly felt aroused by the female body. I would sometimes peep into the women’s bathhouse and toilets. I stole women’s shirts and underwear from stores and wore them at home. I got caught many times and was severely beaten. After each beating, I vowed never to do it again. Then, a few days later, I would start all over. I just couldn’t help myself. In 1985, when I turned sixteen, I was detained by the public security bureau and was eventually sentenced to three years in a reeducation camp for lewd conduct. I was so ashamed of myself that I craved the physical abuse. The pain from my broken ribs gave me a certain surreal sense of redemption and pleasure. In those days, I wasn’t aware of my own sexual identity. I willingly accepted the fact that I was a pervert and hooligan. I was locked up with a group of convicted thieves and gang members. I never imagined that I could survive that place. But I did. I was actually well taken care of in the reeducation camp, thanks to a former college student who majored in psychology. He had been arrested for having sex with his girlfriend in a park. In the 1980s, having sex in a park was a criminal offense. He got eight years. Since he was tough and smart, many of my cellmates were afraid of him and respected him.
When I first arrived, many sex-starved prisoners liked to stare at me, and touch me, especially in the public shower room. They liked my fine skin and my butt. I rejected all of their sexual advances. I had always suffered from low self-esteem. It actually felt pretty good to receive those stares and compliments. Of course, most of the prisoners simply saw me as someone to help them get off. Some were willing to give me their dinner or their shoes in exchange for sex. I turned them down, pointing at the pigs in the sty and saying “Why don’t you go fuck those pigs?”
Secretly, I was in love with the college student. Like you, he was straight. He disliked my feminine demeanor, but as an expert on Western psychology, he knew that homosexuality wasn’t a mental illness. He made it clear to me that I wasn’t a pervert and I shouldn’t feel bad about myself. His words truly touched me. I gradually developed a strong attachment to him and had to hide my true feelings from him. I knew he was serving an eight-year sentence and I was willing to stay there for eight years. I was willing to wash his clothes and listen to his lectures. During our group study sessions, he always encouraged his fellow prisoners to read more books so they could acquire some skills. “Those skills will help you cope with the real world when you are released,” he said. “Don’t be so shameless, harassing Ni Dongxue. He is not your sex slave. Leave him alone.” His remarks brought tears to my eyes. I was even under the delusion that he discouraged people to leave me alone so he could have me all to himself.
One day, a guard assigned me to deliver lunch to prisoners who were working in the field outside. After I finished and was ready to leave, two guys dragged me behind a tree and sodomized me. The guard heard my screams and didn’t come to my rescue. Many people think that sodomy equals homosexuality and that gay people enjoy being sodomized. That is so much bullshit. Rape is rape, no matter whether it happens to a woman or a man. I didn’t get any pleasure from it. I was weak physically and I hated male violence. But, I knew I had to fight back and began to bite and kick my attackers when they tried to rape me again. My hostile reaction stunned many who thought that I would scream with pleasure at their sexual advances. Eventually, when the college student heard about my rape, he beat up a couple of my attackers and warned them to stay away from me. When we worked outside, he would assign me to his group so he could protect me.
I was released from prison six months ahead of schedule. The thought of leaving the college student filled my heart with sadness. The day before I left, he gave me a copy of Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. He encouraged me to read and improve myself. I followed his advice. He was my first love. So many years have passed, and I still can’t forget him. I used to write to him and send him gifts. But, one day, all my letters and gifts were returned to me unopened. My heart was broken. Out of great emotional pain, I began to teach myself the basic college courses on psychology. Three years later, I passed the National Graduate School Entrance Exam and was admitted to the master’s program in psychology at Beijing Teachers’ University. I walked away from that destructive path and started a new life.
Liao: I had a pretty strong bias against gay people until I read a book by sociologists Wang Xiaobo and Li Yinhe, who conducted extensive research and presented an objective picture of the gay communities in China. The book partially changed my views on homosexuality. I can now accept homosexuality intellectually but still feel uncomfortable when I’m around gay people. Like many other straight men, I’m very gender-conscious and chauvinistic. You must have read the story about how a group of transgendered people are imitating the kathoeys in Thailand and giving musical performances at nightclubs in several Chinese cities. I saw them perform once. I liked their singing and dancing. The part I found repulsive was when they showed off their breasts at the end of the performance.
Ni: Those stories perpetuate the public’s misperception of gays and transgendered people and stoke up hostility against us. Not every gay man is a kathoey. The concept of having kathoeys perform at nightclubs was purely a commercial phenomenon. The performers take hormones to make themselves more feminine so their appearance can generate more money. On the other hand, we constantly see celebrities who pander to audiences by performing all sorts of stunts at the end of their performances. How different are they from those kathoeys who show off their breasts?
Homosexuality has been around in China for more than two thousand years. You find descriptions of gay acts in ancient Chinese literature, but they were often condemned and ridiculed. In the Mao era, gay people were treated as sexual perverts. Many were arrested or committed suicides. Therefore, I do cherish the relative freedom we enjoy today. Relatively speaking, we can have our own private space. This is all the result of China’s increasingly commercialized society. In the Mao era, our jobs, housing, food rations, and travel were all micromanaged by Party officials and our personal lives were open books. In a market economy, the government’s role has shrunk. The Party and your neighbors, many of whom you probably don’t even know in a commercial residential building, are no longer as nosy about your personal business. Look at the couple on the left. They are both in their forties. Both have gone through divorces. The one with the mustache is a painter and the thin delicate one has just been laid off from a large state enterprise in Chengdu. In the old days, they would have lost their state jobs for divorcing and moving in together. Now, look at the couple sitting in front of us. Both are architectural engineers and they seem to be a good match, but they each have their own families and neither has the guts to go through a divorce. They act so intimate, as if their wives and children didn’t even exist. Generally speaking, we have a pretty young crowd here. Since many gay people in China are still facing open or hidden pressure from society and families, many are still in the closet. A large number of younger gays have started to come out and live openly with their partners. This is still a pretty recent phenomenon because I’m not aware of anyone who has been out for more than six or seven years.
Liao: Were you married before?
Ni: I was married once. My ex-wife was the daughter of my former professor. I wanted to have a normal family. On our wedding night, I felt obligated as a husband and had sex with her. Throughout our marriage, I never experienced the so-called orgasm or climax I’d read about in books. Despite this, she became pregnant, and that made me feel very guilty. It made me feel terrible about myself and my dishonesty. Later on, I told her the truth about my sexuality and we parted by mutual agreement. We didn’t have the kid.
Liao: When I was in Beijing several years ago, I was introduced to Jin Xing, a well-known ballet dancer, who had male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery in the mid-1990s. During our conversation, I didn’t have the guts to ask her too many questions. I was told that she had wanted to be a ballerina since childhood and aspired to become China’s Isadora Duncan and devote her whole life to dancing. Have you ever thought of going through a sex-reassignment operation?
Ni: I read the story about Jin Xing in the Southern Weekend newspaper. Personally, I think changing one’s body through surgery is too painful. It’s like going through hell. Besides, the surgery costs a lot of money. Even if I sell everything I own, I still can’t afford it. In Jin Xing’s case, she had to undertake three major operations to become what she considered an “authentic woman.” Jing Xing didn’t choose the surgery for the purpose of living like a real woman. She did it to advance her career as a ballerina. In that respect, I guess she’s gotten what she has wanted. Jin Xing is now a big star and a hero in the gay community. When she stands on that heavenly stage, she deserves the cheers and applause from her fans. But, what does it feel like after she steps off the stage and removes her makeup? Despite her surgery, Jin Xing still has the mentality of a man, most of whom would sacrifice their personal lives in pursuit of art and fame. Why can’t we accept what nature has given us and proudly be ourselves? Straight people should know that Jin Xing is a performer and her glamorous stage persona does not represent ordinary gays and lesbians who are as diverse as any other group. Some are macho, others feminine; some crave gender change, and others accept the incompatibilities between their mind and body. We all live our lives quietly, away from the spotlight and without daily applause from an audience. Love takes place between one individual and another.
Liao: What if a guy wants to marry you?
Ni: If a straight guy like you wants to marry me, maybe I’ll consider the surgery. But, seriously, why can’t a man marry another man? Many countries in the West have passed laws to allow same-sex marriages. I think sooner or later, China has to face the same issue.
Liao: I don’t think I can marry you, but I surely enjoy talking with you. I like your honesty and your frankness.
Ni: This seems to be the story of my life. Look at the lines in my palm. They are all in circles, with no way out. I guess I’ll have to stay single the rest of my life. Do you pity me?
Liao: I’m very sympathetic to your situation.
Ni: Well, give me a hug and say “I love you.” By the way, do straight guys in China ever say “I love you” to a man, I mean in a spiritual sense?
Liao: No, but I guess I can. I love you.
Ni: You sound so condescending. When you utter the word “love,” it’s like you’re standing on a cliff trying to spit a grape seed into the canyon below. How many people have you said “I love you” to?
Liao: I don’t know.
Ni: OK, before you try to run away from me, let me quote Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,”
.” . . after the child is born of woman, man is born of woman,
This the bath of birth . . .
. . .
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones . . .”
Liao: That’s beautiful and you have a nice voice.