Singing His Heart Out : Jazz Musician Coco Zhao Talks Being Openly Gay in China

03/22/2012 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2012-03-19-images-Coco.jpgOn our global search for the "Supergays" for our project Out & Around: Stories from a Not-So-Straight Journey, we landed in Shanghai knowing China has no openly gay politicians or celebrities. Very few speak out despite the magnitude of 1.3 billion people in the world's most populated country.

Nevertheless, we found one jazz musician, Coco Zhao, who has never backed down from an opportunity to be a role model for the Chinese LGBT community. He is a proud Shanghai resident who took to the stage in 2009 to kick off Shanghai's first Pride Festival.

Coco has nothing to hide and makes no apologies. His gay life took a very public form in a documentary by Michelle Chen, called Snake Boy. While the film was not widely distributed in China due to the taboo subject matter of homosexuality, it was featured at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 2002 and throughout film festivals across the States and Europe. Coco now has a global following, performing in multiple international jazz festivals.

We caught Coco after rehearsal before Shanghai's world-class jazz festival. He brought us two of his albums, Solitary Bird and Possibilities, that we now continuously play on our iPods while traveling.

How do you define yourself as an artist?

I wouldn't just call myself a jazz vocalist; I would call myself a vocalist. I write my own songs, lyrics, and poetry. As for the type of artist I am, I would call myself a "lifer," because if you can live your life well, that is an art.

How did you get started?

My family is in the music business. My dad is a Chinese opera composer, and my mom used to be a Chinese opera performer, so I grew up with music, but a different type of music.

What was coming out like for you?

I realized I was gay when I was 5, but I came out at 15. I didn't feel any pressures or differences. I came out to my best friend back then. I had been having thoughts and feelings about guys instead of girls that I couldn't explain. I had to ask myself why I didn't have a girlfriend. I never felt it was wrong, just different. Back then I hadn't been out of China, so I wasn't aware of gay community. I thought I would have to figure it out by myself. But my best friend encouraged me to be the person I am. She said, "No matter what you are, as long you are happy, it's OK."

How about your parents?

My parents are cool. I told my mom back in 2002. She said, "OK, I won't discuss this more until I know about this better." She bought psychology books and spoke to Li Yinhe, a famous sexologist in China who has written books on the subject. My mom hunted down her number and called her to ask for advice. Li Yinhe said, "If you want to get to know your son better, don't talk to me, talk to him."

For about two weeks' time after our conversation, my mom cooked for me, did my laundry, and carried on quietly. Then one day she said, "Did you know Tchaikovsky [the famous Russian composer] was gay? Well, then you can be gay, too." My mom just worried about the pressures of society. She worried that people would treat me bad.

I told my mom not to worry. I don't believe that people can make my life hard. I only believe that I can make my life hard. If I can accept myself as who I am, then other people will accept me, as well. If I know what I want, who I am, and where I'm standing, then I don't think people can give me a hard time. She heard that and felt better. She let me be the person I am. My dad took longer, about half a year, to talk to me about it. But once he began to see who I was, he could understand my life better.

How have you dealt with society pressures?

Before I came out and after I came out, I never felt pressure from society. I believe that this world is about power. If you can be strong and sure of who you are, then nobody can take away your power. People can only play power games with those who are insecure.

Sometimes when I get called "faggot," I respond by saying, "My love is probably more pure than yours." I tell them that a lot of straight men get married, go to prostitutes behind their [wives'] back. I try to educate them about what a gay relationship can be, because they have many misconceptions. Most of the time I succeed in educating people that being gay is just another way of being or living. Some people like noodles, other people like to eat rice. There is no one wrong or right.

As a performer, how have you brought your gay identity into your work?

I don't spend a lot of energy thinking about being a gay performer. Most of the time I think of myself as an instrument. I don't think about performing something more masculine or feminine. However, I know my sexuality and personality characters are related to my work. People say my work is very sensitive, detailed, and a little feminine. If that is how my work is, then I wouldn't want it to be another way. That's who I am.

What are your hopes for yourself in upcoming years?

First, my dream is to keep playing music true to my heart. Second, I would like to always be close to the people I love: my parents, my friends, and a lover. Third, I will always try to be true and happy. I don't care about becoming more famous and earning money, just being true to myself and happy.

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Watch clips from Coco's interview, along with other Supergays we interviewed while in Shanghai: