Navigating LGBTQ Identities in China and Study Abroad

As an LGBTQ, masculine-presenting woman, I was nervous to embark on my journey to Beijing, China. I had researched up on it, and it appeared that while it wasn’t illegal or severely discouraged, it was one of those things that people just don’t talk about. That can go either way. The atmosphere in the city could either make me uncomfortable, or it could be almost indistinguishable from what I am used to. It has turned out to be equal or better than being back in the states.

At my work, I have not felt any weird looks or uncomfortable conversations except the dreaded “do you have a boyfriend?”. To which I subtly replied with just “no” and an awkward laugh. I have not been out with my sexuality or my (female) partner at work, however I am pretty sure my supervisor suspects it. Luckily, he is British and Socialist, so he definitely is not a concern for me. I don’t really see a reason for me to disclose that in the short period of time that I am interning (6 weeks). What I was always more concerned about, and what I am always the most worried about in the states too, is my gender expression. Usually my gender expression will (problematically) give away my sexuality and lead the way to more looks and questions. I present very masculine, wearing dress shirts, ties, mens shoes and sometimes putting my hair up. When I enter a new environment, I focus on what reactions I am getting for my dress flipping the typical gender binaries. From day 1, I haven’t felt any push back for my clothes in my office. I haven’t felt too much in the streets either. The only gender-related problems I have had are merchants in the market assuming I want the women’s clothes! That’s pretty easy to handle too. I just tell them I want the men’s items.

So, I am not out to my coworkers so I can’t speak on the experience of my sexuality, but I can say that those that wear non-traditional dress will feel either the same comforts of even safer while in China. I get a lot more looks for my race than for my gender expression. I do wonder if I were Chinese how that would play out, but I cannot speak to that experience and I really haven’t met any Chinese people that dress more masculine. I think that is something I will try to learn more about, though.

This last thought isn’t China-specific but was also a concern of mine that I think many other prospective study abroad students might have. I was anxious about bonding with the group of 20 students that I was traveling to China with. Typically, I really only surround myself with queer people or very open-minded people. I knew going on this trip would bring me together with students residing on the complete opposite side of campus; people in Greek life, religious organizations, people with different maturity levels and little exposure to queer issues. This concern really was running back and forth through my mind leading up to the trip. I figured I could be the only LGBTQ person, and I am not used to that in my UF bubble.

It turns out, there is another queer person on our trip, and people have welcomed me with open arms. I have been very out with my sexuality to everyone on the trip. Even to people that my bias led me to believe would have been completely off-putted. I feel like my group mates are receptive to learning about my issues and I’ve also been able to share experiences with other under-represented groups that are here with me. Of course, any other student may have a different experience, it really depends on the group and the certain identity. I think being a masculine woman is much much easier than being a more effeminate gay man, especially in our group that is overwhelmingly men. The guys want to bro out with me because they resonate with my masculinity. I don’t know if this would be the same experience for a gay man or someone with a more feminine expression. While this is only a small sample size, this experience has given me hope for starting a career in a new office or moving to a new area outside my bubble.

I think the key for any prospective students is to just come in with an open mind. Everyone is looking for friends and that has created some urgency to bond with everyone, no matter their identity. I feel like exposing myself to many of my group mates, as well as learning from them, has created a positive group dynamic and provided some lessons that we will all take back home with us.

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