Metro Weekly

Chinese Takeaway

Commentary: Stonewall Baby

Though I’m up to my eyes with politics lately, my original intention for this particular installment of “Stonewall Baby” was to be more of the same: my two cents on the controversy of comparing the African-American Civil Rights Movement to the fight for GLBT equality in America.

But I’ve been distracted. June 4 marks the anniversary of the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square 20 years ago to quell the democratic uprising that put most — or at least the most powerful corners — of the Chinese establishment on edge. The protesters lost, lives were ruined, the government put a lid on the whole affair and, by anyone’s accounting, hundreds died.

I wasn’t there, but I remember the news well. I was working in a shop in London on Piccadilly Circus, and recall thousands of protesters marching past the windows in support of the Chinese protesters. Living hand-to-mouth, I wasn’t about to cut work to join them, but I was viscerally moved. I was a college student at the time, as were the bulk of Chinese protesters. And my empathy can be extreme.

Now, 20 years later, I’m not as angry at the People’s Republic as I was then. That’s thanks largely to China’s best diplomats: gay fellers.

Oddly, despite the huge numbers of PRC citizens in the world, I’ve had very little exposure. My first meaningful encounter, as best I can recall, wasn’t until 2006, on vacation in Thailand with my partner. As Thailand vacations generally do, ours included plenty of time at the beach, Patong specifically, the island of Phuket’s booming beach town, with thriving gay nightlife.

For one of those dreamy vacation days, we headed out for the “Gay Day Tour by Connect Guesthouse.” It was a good mix of about 30 guys heading out to two uninhabited islands for a barbeque, snorkeling, and all those other things that tourists do during beach vacations. The primary gay twist came during the stop at our second island. With lunch and snorkeling out of the way, now it was time for fun and games.

Noticing that some of the host team were beginning to wrap themselves in colored cloth for an impromptu, drag, chorus line on the beach, eyeing the tourists to see who might be persuaded to join them, I thought fast and offered them Fernando, my partner, while I excused myself to photograph the spectacle. Joining Fernando, the only other tourist pulled into the mess was a Chinese guy whose name I cannot recall. After he and Fernando gave their best effort at kicks and twirls — Fernando draped in blue, our new Chinese pal in orange — we spent more time talking.

We found out he was a diehard Sex and the City fan, eager for details of the final episode, which had not yet made its way to China. He had some government job in communication, where he toiled — like the rest of us — to afford a fun, gay week at the beach. Relatively inconsequential to him, but pricking my American ears, was that he was a member of the Communist Party. After years of indoctrination, living through the last years of the Cold War or taking the required course comparing communism to democracy at my public high school in Florida, meeting a bona fide Communist felt mildly dangerous. He must’ve been tickled by my apparent surprise. We, on the other hand, were just tickled by our new, flamboyant Chinese friend’s personality. When we compiled our photo album of that trip, the pic of him in flowing orange was a must for the cover.Next up was Coco Zhao, a popular and openly gay singer from Shanghai, in town last spring to perform at the Rosslyn Spectrum. He had a free Saturday during his stay, so we offered to show him around gay D.C. a little. From Halo to Green Lantern, we tried to show Coco and one of the boys from his band — a quiet, slight young man with, he explained in somewhat adorably broken English, a penchant for leather — as much gay nightlife as we could in just a couple of hours.

In turn, Coco fired our imaginations with tales of a Shanghai filled with expat American bears, smoking weed in the back of cabs, and a thriving scene of jazz clubs. We’re not much in touch, but at least Facebook keeps us only a few keystrokes apart.

As I reflect on this 20-year anniversary of tragedy, however, I am hopeful about China’s future. And I don’t begrudge my Chinese friends their patriotism. Does China have a scarred human-rights record? You bet. Then again, the Kent State shootings and the Iraq war haven’t shaken my patriotism. Instead, I’ve met a sliver of China that is not so different from myself.

Maybe only Nixon could go to China, to quote Mr. Spock. But my own bias leads me to believe that gays from anywhere can build bridges where others see borders. Next up: my office mate’s gay — and patriotic — cousin who is moving to the U.S. for college. From Tehran.

Will O’Bryan, Metro Weekly‘s managing editor, was born as the Stonewall Riots ended, making him a Stonewall Baby, he insists.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.