A Mother’s Love Inspires a Nation :: Mama Wu says ’Gay is Okay’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 17, 2010

Chinese society has been making steady progress toward greater acceptance of LGBTs. Now a former magazine editor has a message for the nation's parents of gay children: it's okay.

Wu Youjian, 63, learned over a decade ago that her son was gay. In a nation where children are under enormous pressure to marry and have their own offspring, parents hearing such news often take it badly; sometimes parents break off relations with gay children. Other times, they experience a deep sense of shame and contemplate suicide. The woman who has become known as "Mama Wu" instantly arrived at a different response: acceptance. "I told him, there's nothing wrong with liking boys and it's no big deal," Wu told CNN in a Nov. 16 article.

Five years after he came out to her in 1999, Mama Wu's son, 30-year-old Zheng Yuantao, made a television appearance to talk publicly about being gay--and Mama Wu was there with him to offer her support.

"Many of my gay friends are afraid of going home during holidays, because their parents would ask about girlfriends and press them to get married," Zheng told CNN. Unlike his friends, Zheng added, "I grew up in a very open-minded family. I didn't have too much of a struggle about my sexuality."

Mama Wu has not limited her support to her own son, but rather has become a well-known advocate for China's gay community. Mama Wu blogs and tweets about the cause, and is the founder of China's first PFLAG chapter, the CNN article said. "I just followed my instinct and my love for my son," Wu explained.

Added Wu, who has recently published a new book titled Love is the Most Beautiful Rainbow, "It doesn't matter if our children are gay or straight--just like it doesn't matter if they are left-handed or right-handed. They are always our children." That core message undergirds the talks Wu gives across the nation, and is part of her campaign to raise awareness on issues such as HIV and the high rate of gay suicides in China.

Such acceptance and unconditional support renders unnecessary the extremes to which some gays feel driven by family obligation. In the past, sociologist Li Yinhe told CNN, gay men usually married women and produced children as expected. Now, it's becoming more common for gay men to marry lesbians, thus fulfilling part of the familial expectation, but then the gay husbands and their lesbian wives lead separate romantic lives.

According to Li--whose 1992 about gays Wu read and was impressed with--Chinese society would have been much more resistant to a message of acceptance had it come from the West. But Wu is Chinese and understands the deep family bonds that run through the nation's social structure. Her example--not of turning away from a gay child who may not extend the family line, but rather of embracing a child no matter what--allows Chinese parents with gay children to consider alternatives. "No one would listen to an outsider, but she is not--she is a mother whose only son is gay," Li told CNN. "Others would wonder, 'If she can handle it so well, why can't I?' "

Indeed, other parents are beginning to emerge as fully supportive of their gay children. A separate CNN article, also published Nov. 16, said that parents and gay children stood together on stage at a Shanghai Pride event called Family Day, on Nov. 6. Shanghai.

"Coming out starts with the family--and it was great to see family members there," organizer Kenneth Tan told CNN. "We hope to make this a regular feature and see more people show up next year."

China's growing acceptance is similar to social trends in America. One young American living in Beijing, 23-year-old Stephen Leonelli, attended a PFLAG meeting headed by Wu. Leonelli related to CNN how, as a gay teen in the American Midwest, he had experienced isolation. "No one else was out, and I didn't know how to deal with it," he recalled. "Even I would have benefited from such a talk" as the one Wu delivered to the PFLAG meeting.

Though homosexuality is not illegal in China, the government still seems to harbor ambivalence toward gays. Earlier this year, what would have been the first China-hosted gay pageant was cancelled literally at the last minute, but only a few months before, the first state-sanctioned gay bar opened its doors. In the greater scheme, however, Li said, the government has other things to worry about.

That might be a mixed blessing for gays, who are not routinely persecuted, but who also are unlikely to see their relationships granted official legal recognition in the near future. "Gays are minorities in society," Li, who serves as an advisor to the Chinese government, told CNN. Li has pressed for marriage rights for gay and lesbian families, but, she said, "People just don't think this issue is important enough, compared to national priorities like economic development."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.