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A night out in LGBT Beijing

China’s ancient capital of Beijing may be typified by the grey bricks of its winding hutong lanes, but bright rainbow hues are bursting through the cracks. We meet one of the city’s most prominent LGBT trailblazers.

Marlon Ma tosses back his tussled hair, complete with honey-colored highlights, as he sinks another shot, his eyes sparkling with mischief beneath hazel contacts. He’s in his element, celebrating a friend’s birthday at a local gay bar, where he’s always a star attraction. Despite his young age, the 28-year-old from central China’s Henan province is known as a pioneer of LGBT life in the capital, having organized the city’s first drag show, LGBT Gala, Pink Brunch, and AIDS Walk, among many other accolades.

Marlon Ma. Photo: Aurelien Foucault Although Ma admits Beijing’s gay scene has a long way to go until it can rival that of major cities in the West — where bars for all persuasions, be it “bears,” “twinks,” “daddies” or “swimmers” abound — the city of 21.5 million has come a long way down the rainbow brick road since his arrival in 2011. Back then, Ma says, there was only one gay club, the huge thudding mammoth that is Destination, and one “unspoken” gay night at Mesh, the bar of trendy design hotel Opposite House. It was the choice between ear-shattering debauchery and hushed-up finesse that persuaded Ma to set up something himself.
“Destination was no good for an older, more sophisticated crowd and I didn’t like the idea of Mesh not promoting their gay night. The point is not just for us to have a place, but also a voice,” he says.

So Ma started GLAM (Good Looking Asian Men) a regular gay pop-up night that toured the capital’s bars. A few years later, he hosted Beijing’s first drag night as his alter-ego Kinky Sakura. As well as venue, drinks and music sponsors, the event attracted the gaze of both local and international media. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not sure I’m okay with this’,” says Ma as he recalls his initial panic. “This was supposed to be a small party and tomorrow my face is going to be on the front pages. But at that moment, I just thought, ‘F*ck it’. This is an opportunity to break through.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Historically, China has no problem with homosexuality. Same-sex relations have been documented since the ancient times, with several early Chinese emperors thought to have taken male bed partners. However, being gay became a crime during Mao Zedong’s ruthless Cultural Revolution, when everything, including sexuality, had to kowtow before the Communist cause. It was only decriminalized in 1997 and was even classed as a mental illness until 2001. 

Modern-day China is ideologically indifferent. As an officially atheist nation, there’s no moral code that dictates your sexual preference. There are, however, familial pressures, particularly for men. Thanks to China’s “One Child Policy,” introduced in 1979 and scrapped in 2016, the burden to continue the family name falls squarely on the shoulders of the nation’s boys, straight or otherwise.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ma’s parents have made peace with his sexuality, especially since the PR exec promised his father he would one day deliver him a grandchild, either by surrogate or adoption. All he now wishes for his queer peers is that they can foster a similar kind of acceptance within themselves. “I don’t give a damn how people see us. I just want the gay people living here to feel comfortable and free,” he says.

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