Earlier in 2019, the UK experienced a wave of protests against same-sex education in primary schools. Ilia Hionidou interviews academics about their experiences in teaching courses that feature LBGTQ+ content. The series discusses the benefits and backlashes of including LGBTQ+ studies in higher education across the UK and the US and aims to inform readers about important moments in LGBTQ+ history.
Dr Hongwei Bao is an Assistant Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham. His research primarily focusses on contemporary queer media, culture and activism in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In 2018, Dr Bao published Queer Comrades, which explains the emergence of tongzhi (meaning comrade), an indigenous Chinese queer identity, and associated forms of activism linked with this identity in a post-socialist era (1978 to present). Currently, Dr Bao is working on a book that will investigate queer media and culture in China for the past three decades, in the hopes of spotlighting community media and cultural productions. On a theoretical plain, his work considers the idea of “post-socialism”, which explores how change over time has shaped sexual identities, spaces and cultures.
At the University of Nottingham, Dr Bao teaches a number of academic modules that feature queer themes: “The third-year research-led module I teach, Gender, Sexuality and Media, deals explicitly with representation of gender and sexuality in contemporary media. Half of the module is devoted to exploring issues in feminist media studies, and the other half to queer media studies.” Alongside this Dr Bao teaches three other modules discussing media and cultural theories. Although these modules do not focus solely on LGBTQ+ topics, Dr Bao says that feminism and queer theory are often incorporated into the modules.
In Samshasha’s The History of Homosexuality in China, the prominent gay rights activist from Hong Kong states that in ancient China, people were not seriously persecuted for engaging in same-sex sexual behaviours, and prominent emperors of many ancient Chinese dynasties would entertain one or more same-sex partners. It was not until after the invasion of western powers following China’s loss in the 1840 Opium War, that China adopted the homophobic attitudes and psychiatric practices originating from the Occident.
Under Mao (1949-1976), homosexual behaviour was grounds for persecution. While homosexual behaviour itself was not specifically a crime in Mao’s China, same-sex practice fell under the category of “hooliganism”, a term which covered a range of antisocial behaviours, including extra-marital sex and “social indecency”. Punishment for “hooliganism” was expansive; individuals could be detained for a few days or imprisoned for a number of years. Wenqing Kang’s historical research demonstrates that large-scale persecutions of homosexuals took place predominantly towards the beginning of the post-Mao era.
In 1978, under Deng Xiaoping, China adopted an open-door policy encouraging foreign investment and economic transformation. With this came the breakdown of isolationist barriers, providing young Chinese men the opportunity to realise their sexuality and form relationships with other men. However, from this point until the mid-1990s, gay people in China would face both administrative as well as legal chastisement, demotion, losing pay or being fired. Whilst China decriminalised same-sex activities in 1997 and have permitted gender reassignment (accompanied by sexual reassignment surgery) since 2009, adoption, marriage and protection against employment discrimination are some of the rights that China’s LGBTQ+ population are still denied.
Much of the academic research published on LGBTQ+ subjects concentrate on the experiences, findings and literatures of the global west. In light of this, why must higher education focus its research on LGBTQ+ populations outside the US and Europe? For Dr Bao, the answer is quite straightforward. First and foremost, “China’s ongoing queer history needs to be documented”, records of China’s queer communities are sparse: “queer histories are often marginalised or even erased in dominant historical narratives, and yet they are crucial to China’s queer communities. I consider myself a queer community historian [whose] role is to document and analyse China’s queer community histories and cultures before they are forgotten.”
With an academic focus on the LGBTQ+ community in China, researchers may provide a clearer understanding of China and its transnational queer cultures. Dr Bao states that, “we live in an interconnected world: what is happening in China also has a significant impact on the rest of the world.” Furthermore, it should be appreciated that “queer cultures and activism in China form an important part of the transnational struggles against heteronormativity, patriarchy, state violence and capitalist exploitation.” With this, research and teaching on LGBTQ+ topics in higher education shouldn’t foreground the west. Rather, “every culture should be a part of this picture.”
From a theoretical point of view, the study of queer China can further our comprehension of sexuality and its relationship to politics. Dr Bao points to the inability to generalise frameworks associated with queer culture study, with cultures outside the west not holding concepts of individualism in such high esteem, and instead draw from the cultural, social and political facets of society in their construction of queer identity. “In China, this queer subject is often influenced by Confucian traditions in which the individual is part of the family and a collective.” Dr Bao clarifies that he is not advocating “an essentialised cultural difference between China and the west, but for greater attention paid to the historical specificities of all cultures and identities.”
The past decade has seen a sharp increase in the scholarship and teaching on topics about queer China: “there has been a proliferation of books and scholarly articles on queer cultures in China, and at the same time we also see the formation of an academic field called Chinese and Sinophone queer studies.” By and large, Dr Bao says, this “has to do with an increased scholarly interest in China as China grows into a global superpower.” This coincides with an increased visibility of the LGBTQ+ population in China over the past two decades.
Dr Bao observes that there has been a “rapid development of queer identities, communities and cultures in urban China. There are gay bars and LGBTQ+ organisations in almost every major Chinese city; gender and sexual minorities have also come up with ingenious strategies to cope with government censorship and to fight for their rights.” This development, says Dr Bao, “shapes what China will be like in the future. Queer issues in China go beyond the concerns of gender and sexual minorities in China; they have become important benchmarks for China’s development and for the future of the world.”
What advice does Dr Bao have for culture and language departments so as to ensure that this increase in scholarship promotes the inclusivity of LGBTQ+ and other minorities in higher education syllabuses and curricula? He has two recommendations. Firstly, departments must promote the “inclusion of LGBTQ+-identified staff in staff recruitment and inclusion of queer studies modules in teaching curricula.” While many universities do encourage the teaching of LGBTQ+ topics, “there has been a worrying tendency on university campuses that once the job of gender and sexuality education has been assigned to a few members of staff (usually LGBTQ+-identified), it can be legitimately ignored by all other staff.” Dr Bao stresses that “covering queer issues should not merely be the responsibility of a small number of academic staff; it should be the concern of all staff, because gender and sexuality issues are relevant to all staff and students.”
Secondly, Dr Bao would encourage “queer mainstreaming”, a term he has borrowed from the feminist “gender mainstreaming”. That is, he elaborates “placing LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality in all modules and curricula if possible. For example, in a History module, there is no reason for not teaching feminist history and queer history; in a Media Studies module, media construction of gender and sexuality should be rightly given due attention.” To achieve this, academics need to evaluate the contents of their teaching holistically.
Universities play a unique societal role in their ability to impact non-academic communities. Dr Bao believes that this is also true of LGBTQ+ populations: “gender and sexual equality education should not be confined to school and university campuses; it should reach out to the queer communities and the general public.” In recognition of academia’s role in ensuring that research is accessible to all, Dr Bao claims that to do this, “an educator [is required] to be proactive and communicative and make efforts to bring knowledge to the communities and society.”
Dr Bao’s LGBTQ+ outreach efforts span both the UK and China. In Nottingham, he has organised events – such as talks, workshops, film screenings and panel discussions – that focus on queer topics almost every year and they have created a space for academics, queer communities and the general public. “Some of these events were in collaboration with local partners such as Nottingham LGBT+ Network, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, Nottingham Contemporary, Broadway Cinema, and Five Leaves Bookshop.” In some instances, these events are also part of the teaching curriculum for Dr Bao’s modules. During LGBT History Month in 2019, he invited Chinese queer filmmakers to screen their films in Nottingham, fielding an audience Q&A session. Although this was part of his Gender, Sexuality and Media module, this event was free and open to the public.
Dr Bao explains that these events “communicated [my] research to the queer communities; they also co-produced academic knowledge through a collaborative and participatory approach.” With this, he hopes “to convey the idea that queer research should not simply be confined to university campuses; it needs to be socially relevant and should speak to the needs of the communities and the wider society.” Within the University of Nottingham, Dr Bao is a part of a department and school that he describes as “queer-friendly”, in which the faculty is supportive of his research on LGBTQ+ cultures. He has had similar positive reactions from his students, some of whom follow up after lectures to talk about their own identities and experience, and to express appreciation for covering queer topics.
The research and work of Dr Hongwei Bao serves the argument that academic institutions shouldn’t adopt a one-dimensional approach to address the imbalance in academic teaching; such best practice has the power to amplify and spread understanding about the multi-faceted experiences of culturally variant LGBTQ+ communities all over the globe.