BEIJING, May 8, 2008 -- Being openly gay in China is one of the country's biggest taboos, but you wouldn't know it stepping into Destination, Beijing's hottest gay club.
Nicknamed "Desperation," this dance club and lounge, with its thumping bass, beautiful people, flowing cocktails and bouncing hydraulic dance floor -- seems at first like a typical weekend hot spot .
But it's far from the usual Chinese nightclub.
While there would be nothing remarkable about Destination in the United States, here the club stands apart. Self-labeled "Beijing's finest bar venue for the alternative crowd," Destination is often the only place in Beijing where young gay men can reveal their true selves.
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And in order for them to feel safe, two basic rules are posted prominently on every wall: no photography, and no drugs.
Emilio Liu, a Chinese undergraduate student in Beijing, says Destination is his place to not only relax and dance, but to find himself.
"I'm still trying to figure it all out," he said on a Friday night at the club. "I'm not sure what I am, but I know I'm not straight. Maybe bi, maybe gay. So I come here to hang out and meet people."
Declining to give his name, a 23-year-old accountant for Pricewaterhouse Coopers comes to Destination every weekend because of its open and comfortable atmosphere. He first checked out the club when he moved from his hometown of Chongqing, an inland city in south central China, to attend college in Beijing.
"Everyone's the same here. Everyone's gay. Sure, we go to mainstream clubs and bars too, but Destination is a more natural setting for us," he said. "And the dancing is great."
Destination has enjoyed relatively unfettered business in Beijing. Its clientele is overwhelmingly male; less than 5 percent of its customers are women.
Out to Friends but Not to Parents
China's gay and lesbian population is, by some unofficial estimates, between 30 million and 50 million. But much of this population stays in the closet.
Many gay and lesbian Chinese say that, more than the government, traditional family values and social conservatism have discouraged them from disclosing their sexual orientation.
"China is more traditional. Parents hope their children will develop normally, so most won't accept homosexuality," the 23-year-old accountant explained over Destination's pumping music.
He recently started his job at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Beijing and has yet to feel pressure from his parents, who live thousands of miles away in Chongqing.
"If your parents are very modern and understanding, then it's great to come out. But that is not the case. Not saying anything can help everyone avoid feeling unnecessary pain," he said.
"I have one friend who has come out of the closet. To his friends' surprise, his parents have really understood him," he added. "Another friend, though, his parents didn't receive the news well. They can't accept it, or control their reaction. If I don't tell my parents, it's easier."
One of this accountant's friends is a Beijing college student who's even more pragmatic about his sexuality. He also declined to give his name for the interview.
Bouncing to remixes of Madonna and Justin Timberlake, he admitted that he won't be on the dance floor forever. "I'm gay in China, but I also have hopes and plans," he said. "I already have two clothing shops, and I want to open another. I'd like to study abroad after I graduate too.
"But talking about being gay would get in the way. I won't tell my family because they would abandon me," he said. "Plus, I want to work in a government ministry in the future. If I come out, there's no way I could do that. So, later in life, I'll probably get married [to a woman] because it makes things easier."
Queer as Folk Beijing
Homosexuality, especially among men, has a long history in China. Same-sex encounters first appeared among intellectuals and artists in ancient art and classical literature, perhaps most famously in the classical Chinese novel "The Dream of the Red Chamber."
Unlike the persecution of homosexuals in Europe's Middle Ages, homosexuality is widely believed to have been relatively commonplace in China's Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.
The tide turned when the Communist Party founded the People's Republic of China in 1949. Social acceptance of homosexuality dwindled even further, as the cultural revolution severely punished homosexuals with lengthy prison terms and physical abuse.
Today, the future seems to hold progressive possibilities. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from a list of mental illnesses published by the Chinese Psychiatric Association. Hundreds of Web sites and groups have formed online and in the Beijing community, such as the popular Beijing Tongzhi and Beijing La La Bar's online forum.
Xiao Gang, the director and the blogger behind the weekly video podcast series "Queer as Folk Beijing," wants to expand the comfort zone beyond bars and clubs like Destination.
In a lighthearted talk show format, Xiao Gang and his co-hosts invite experts and scholars to investigate various social topics facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender society. Last week's episode included a scholar's groundbreaking research on male sex workers in China. He hopes to educate a broader audience about the homosexual Chinese community.
Because there's no openly gay Chinese celebrity or role model to look up to yet, Xiao Gang is himself creating opportunities for Chinese people to understand and perhaps someday accept homosexuality.
"Images are powerful. Chinese people don't know what gays, lesbians and bisexuals look like," Xiao Gang explained. "Maybe they seem scary. There are NGOs and hotlines to support these people nowadays, but there is no visual. When you see people for yourself, it's harder to judge them."
To date, "Queer as Folk Beijing" has attracted more than 1 million viewers but relatively little controversy. The podcast is available on YouTube and popular Chinese video sites such as Sina and Tudou. Soon, Xiao Gang will show it on Facebook.
"Sure, people will leave disdainful comments on the video sites, but overall the reaction has been quite positive," Xiao Gang told ABC News.
Despite the fact that he is a gay community leader, Xiao Gang has not come out to his parents. In his eyes, his life's work and his parents' knowledge of his sexuality are not necessarily related. The traditional role of family has deterred him from coming out of the closet.
"I really don't want to make my parents mad for the rest of their lives. Here, family is a big religion," he said. "Most people are out to friends, but not to parents."
As he attempts to correct misconceptions about being gay in China, he says he realizes his parents are an example of a tough reality: While gay Beijing makes informal social progress, acceptance at home and by the government will take much longer.
"Yes, I'm doing ["Queer as Folk Beijing"]. But the thing is, parents in China aren't educated about what being gay is. If someone came out to his parents, they'd not only be mad but would probably say bad things to neighbors and friends. They would spread more incorrect concepts about us," Xiao Gang said.
There have been multiple attempts to pass a same-sex marriage bill in the National People's Congress, but it has failed three times. Recently, there have been reports of police investigations of gay bathhouses and Beijing's Destination and Shanghai's PinkHouse, perceived as "spring cleaning" in preparation for the Olympic Games.
As Chinese society slowly evolves and bends its traditional rules, "Queer as Folk Beijing" and Destination appear to be promising signs of the future for gay Beijing. While the beat goes on, Destination continues to serve as a comfortable haven for gay men in Beijing.
Just don't tell your parents you were here.