When I first came to Asia, I had a short love affair with a very trim young swimmer. We really hit it off, the sex was simply fantastic, and after two weeks, over tea and mao dou, I popped the question of whether he wanted to move in with me.
In return I received nothing but a blank stare. Then he made it very clear that his life would follow traditional Asian values, and that there was no question of living with a man -- that was simply wrong! (Seducing them in the showers apparently is fine.) He said that he would have fun with men until he was 30, then find a woman, marry her, and father children. Coming from a liberal European family and being openly gay, I was shocked to the core. I could not believe my ears! I did not understand how a gay man could so clearheadedly and cold-bloodedly map out for himself a life founded on denial. I knew then that I had to learn a lot about Asian culture.
The Chinese world has just celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Dragon. On New Year's Eve I was sitting with friends, among them an eminent NTU sociologist, in a bar in Taipei's gay area, discussing the concept of family in Confucianism. It turned out that all of the women and men present had broken links with their families -- that's why they were there, talking to me, rather than at home with their parents celebrating the new year. "Being gay in Chinese society is simply impossible," one of them said with dejected eyes. Despite all the camp banter, the martinis, and the Kate Perry videos, it was really a rather sad evening. It prompted me to write this column.
There is a reason why so many gay Asians end up living outside their home countries. Whereas gays in Western civilizations have to contend only with the idiocies of outdated religious moral concepts, the Confucian tradition that infuses most Asian societies is much more of a social straitjacket, affecting every aspect of life much more menacingly. To absolve yourself of the moral pressures of Christianity or Judaism, you simply need to turn your back on religion. Living a fulfilling, open life in China, Korea, Japan, or Taiwan effectively means violating the basic tenets of Confucianism. And at the heart of Confucianism is not a revelation of a benevolent god but a rulebook of obligations, to serve superiors, honor mother and father, and, above all, fit in and adhere to an age-old plan for life that is the same for everyone: grow up, marry someone of the opposite sex, make babies, buy them a house, force them to marry in turn, and then hope they don't shove you off to a home for the elderly.
At first glance, some Asian societies seem to be more tolerant of homosexuality than those in the Judeo-Christian sphere. This is an illusion. The main difference between Asian and Western societies is that the traditional religious morality of the West, and even that of the Enlightenment, always make judgments about individual behavior. There is a question of personal morality, which each one of us has to decide for himself or herself.
In Confucianism individual morality is framed only in terms of social coherence and social responsibility. Even though an open-minded parent in an Asian society may not in principle object to her son having sexual contact with men, they will still reject the idea of him remaining single and not having offspring. Offspring, indeed, is everything in Confucianism -- the sole purpose of social organization. What many gay Asian men and women are escaping is not a moral condemnation by their peers but the looming straitjacket of heterosexual marriage.
The shackles of Confucianism reach into every aspect of life. It dictates behavior toward peers, superiors, inferiors, and relatives, and it does so with a brutality and impersonality that is only rivaled by other fascist doctrines. In fact, reading the Confucian classics, one feels to a maddening extent reminded of the early 20th century in Europe. Mussolini's Italy certainly embodied many of the values that are held up as shining examples of Asian values today.
The recent revival of Confucianism as a state doctrine by China is bad news for the LGBT community. Apart from its social implications and focus on obedience and procreation, Confucianism is essentially a recipe for corruption and state coercion. It has very little respect -- and almost no room -- for personal freedoms. The greater good envisaged by old Confucius is, in essence, the greater good of the totalitarian state. Confucianism is an Orwellian network of doctrines whose sole beneficiary is some imagined "great will of the people." And the only thing all people can agree upon, it seems, is obedience and procreation. Without obedience, censorship, and coercion in even the simplest social aspects, Confucian societies would not function.
The Confucian values propaganda machine of the People's Republic of China works through its international network of embassies and cultural centers. Confronted with the loss of social cohesion and moral values in the aftermath of the quasi-demise of communism, China has started to set up Confucius Institutes around the world. They are spreading a message that is no less dangerous, inhuman, and intolerant of individual lifestyles than those of the religious right in America, or that of extremist Islam. They claim to offer an alternative to "Western" ethics in the form of modern Confucianism. I have attended some of the lectures, and I have been shocked by the conservative, reprobate attitude they espouse. Dismissive of individual freedom and respect, they are intended to justify the power of the state and securely fasten the manacles of traditional family values.
In a Confucian context, being gay is not considered an immoral choice but a refusal to participate in society, a kind of failure not unlike the "failure" to have children. The pressures in Confucian thought are not only directed against homosexuals, but against all people who do not conform to those values, thus holding back and paralyzing society as a whole. The consequence for dissenters is exclusion or ejection. Confucianism rejects personal choices that go against the good of the group and its implicit goal of self-proliferation, so that gay men and women end up leading intolerably unhappy and unfulfilled lives. When we stand up against conservatives and religious zealots, we must also include Confucianism as a target. China's economic power and increasing influence in the world give it a voice that is growing stronger day by day, a voice we need to oppose whenever we hear it, because it is the very antithesis of the personal liberties we believe in.
I put all this to two of the men who spent New Year's Eve with me.
"It's a bit philosophical, but essentially, it's true," said one. "You simply can't be gay here. It's not a matter of not going to church, like in the West. There is simply no room for us."
"But its not as bad in Taiwan, because there are loads of Buddhists and Christians and atheists -- so it's more varied, and people like us find niches," said the other.
Like the gay street behind the Hong Lou Theater, where we spent that rainy evening full of gloomy thoughts, but which undoubtedly is one of the most promising pockets of hope in all Asia.
"Confucianism may be a straightjacket," said my friend, "but at least in Taiwan the straightjacket is put on loosely, and already fraying at the seams."