May 17th is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.
Arriving in New Zealand to begin my doctorate in 2017, I immediately felt that it was a more hospitable environment for LGBT people than my home country.
On my first day at Auckland University, I saw a rainbow flag hanging in the window of an international student office. A poster at the entrance of the library states “there is no tolerance for racism, sexism, ability, age, homophobia, and transfobia” and my registration form offers the “X (diverse)” option to register my gender. He also asked if I was identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or Takatapui – a term used by LGBT members of the New Zealand Maori population.
According to the university Policy, schools collect this information to support students who are more likely to face obstacles in accessing and succeeding at university. This is also used to build a university and teacher network “LGBTQI Takatāpui +”, which promotes sexual equality and diversity on campus.
Although the university’s official policy gave me a sense of belonging and a sense of security, I soon realized that New Zealand was not a protection from the discrimination and anti-LGBT prejudice I hoped for. As an overseas student from China, integrating into mainstream New Zealand society is difficult, and much of my social life is therefore tied to the local Chinese community – a diverse mix of migrants, students and New Zealanders who are Chinese heritage. And unfortunately, most of these communities are not very tolerant of sexual minorities.
In 2019, the petition “Stop Teaching Transgender in New Zealand Schools” is very broad together in the Chinese New Zealand community. The petition urges the country’s parliament to remove content related to gender diversity from the sexuality education curriculum. Many Chinese parents worry that the class will instill “gay thinking” in the minds of their children, reflecting their anti-LGBT prejudices and misconceptions about how sexuality education works in New Zealand.
I experienced this firsthand when I taught Mandarin part-time at an educational institution in Auckland. My students are mostly children of Chinese descent, and my boss “advised” me not to reveal my sexual identity, because of concerns that parents might not send their children to class if they knew.
In order to keep my work and network intact, I reluctantly have an obligation. But I can’t help but see the bitter irony of this situation: As a university teacher in China, I made it decision to get out, mostly as a way to support LGBT students in their struggle to get homophobic textbook remembered. But in New Zealand, where I was sure I would be more welcome, somehow I was forced to return to the closet.
Maintaining relations with other Chinese in New Zealand requires many such compromises. The church is one of the main social networks for Chinese people in the country. However, during the church activities that I participated in, only marriages and heterosexual love were celebrated, and the legalization of same-sex marriages in the country in 2013 was often ridiculed. This remark irritates me. Seeing people around me freely share details about their lives, I feel like hiding embarrassing secrets or heresy. Even when renting a house from a Chinese landlord, I usually keep my distance and avoid discussing my personal life.
However, it is more difficult on campus. My international student colleagues keep asking about my research. When I told them, I learned about work experience gay teacher at a Chinese university, their reactions tend to vary. Some people thought I was studying homosexuality from the outside and warned me to protect myself from the “negative influence” of homosexuality – the implication was that my research could make me gay.
Other responses come from places of ignorance, curiosity, or even compassion. “What causes homosexuality?” they might ask. “Are there gay teachers in China?” “Do you plan to have children in the future? It might be difficult for you to have a normal life. “
And some are really offensive. “Why can’t you like girls?” I was once asked. “When you are with your girlfriend, do you play the role of a boy or a girl?”
I can’t help but be surprised at how stupid many Chinese international students are about the issue of sexuality and gender. Most of them are doctoral students who have spent years living in New Zealand, where the sexual minority is almost invisible. But they still consider all heterosexual people, men must be masculine, and marrying members of the opposite sex and having children is the only “normal” way in life.
As a gay man, I must look flawed – an outcast who deviates from the mainstream. Even those who show sincere sympathy unconsciously express their feelings of superiority as heterosexual.
I usually don’t know how to react to all this. Most of them are my classmates and friends. I do not believe they intend to offend me; I even thought they supported my identity and life choices.
So I can’t just write their comments as homophobia. If I object or argue, it can damage my relationship with them. I’m also worried that I might be too sensitive. I prefer to believe that their attitude stems from a lack of reflection about the way heteronormativity operates in mainstream culture. Normalization of heterosexuality can be dangerous, and silently affects every aspect of our lives. A number of critical thoughts are needed for heterosexual people to recognize their privileges.
However, if I silently swallow my dissatisfaction, then other people may never know how their words have offended me or have the opportunity to ponder why what they say might be inappropriate. Through my silence, I inadvertently forgive this heteronormative belief.
In our daily lives, LGBT youth often suffer micro-attacks like this – whether intentional or not. This insult can be verbal, behavioral, or environmental. Those who perpetrate or perpetuate it often have heterosexual biases – in other words, they assume the sexual minority is “sick” or abnormal. American scholar Kevin Nadal explained microaggressions as “death by a thousand cuts.”
Most of the LGBT international students from China that I know are reluctant to reveal their sexual identities for fear of being ostracized, which makes me increasingly visible in school – as if I “show off” my sexuality. Ironically, this fame went beyond the international student community to influence the way I was received elsewhere on campus. A head of the Maori student council in my faculty once called me “famous” and the only gay Chinese student he had ever met.
Of course, if I’m “famous” just because I don’t hide my sexual orientation, maybe our campus isn’t as diverse and friendly as it should be.
Indeed, my experience is not just “the problem of China.” When a bachelor from the University of Auckland recently surveyed LGBTTIQA + students on our campus, they arrive at contradictory conclusions: Many of these students say they feel “safe but not safe” at school. On one hand, the university’s “zero discrimination” policy, as well as rainbow stickers and posters, inspired them; on the other hand, they still experience verbal abuse and discrimination, which makes them think twice before revealing their identities. Scholars argue that, even though the university has openly expressed support for LGBTTIQA + students through its official policy, the promised inclusiveness has not yet been achieved.
These problems only become more complicated for international students. In one study of international LGBT students in the United States, the researchers said was found that those who come from countries hostile to their sexual identities face unique challenges when they have to accept themselves, get out, and return home.
As a gay international student in New Zealand, I struggled for a long time over whether I should leave the country after graduation. The relatively gay-friendly environment here is attractive to many LGBT international students, even those who still feel uncomfortable publicly identifying it. Returning home, on the other hand, often meant losing official protection and returning to the closet. But it is difficult to get a solid footing in a foreign country and it is easier to build a career in your native land.
The pressure created by this internal conflict can be overwhelming. There was a moment during my freshman year when a combination of economic, academic and emotional pressures made it so that I could not focus on my studies. I am seriously thinking to get out.
But my marginal identity also gives me insights and experiences that no one else has. During my studies at Auckland University, I was invited to serve as a “rainbow representative” on my faculty equity committee. This means speaking on behalf of and advocating for a sexual minority on campus.
I also believe my identity as a Chinese person and as an international student allows me to better understand the difficulties experienced by people of color and immigrants in terms of their sex or sexual orientation. I therefore seek to build networks for Chinese LGBT students in the hope of helping them feel less isolated.
It’s been almost three years since I set foot in New Zealand, and looking back, I’m glad I survived. I have not forgotten why I first decided to study abroad and currently tend to live abroad after I graduate. But wherever I end, I will continue to speak out against the sexual injustices experienced by the LGBT community everywhere through my academic research and activism.
Now that I have embarked on this journey, there is no turning back.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Image header: Shi Yangkun and Ding Yining / Sixth Tone)