It’s a hot June day in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Yang Yong, a 35-year-old banker, rushes onboard the Costa Atlantica with his two elderly parents for a five-day cruise to Vietnam.
He’s told them he got a cheap deal. His mother is pleased, but his father looks less enthusiastic. For Yang, it was important that they join him. They thought it was just a family holiday, but little do they know what’s about to come next.
Now in their 70s, Yang’s parents have been worried about their unmarried son, even arranging blind dates for him in the hope that he might meet someone and settle down.
Sitting with them after breakfast on the second day, Yang drops the bombshell.
“I want you to know that this will have an impact on our lives,” he says with tears welling in his eyes. “I thought about not telling you, but I want us all to live together in the future, so I have to say it.”
His mother asks if he’s ill. His father asks if he’s attracted to men.
The family is traveling on the “Rainbow Cruise” from Shenzhen to Da Nang, along with more than 1,000 gay Chinese people and their families.
During the five-day voyage, they’ll attend workshops, talks, and activities including speed dating onboard the cruise ship, and get support and advice on LGBTQ issues.
It’s also a place for some, like Yang, to come out.
Now in its third year, the annual event is organized by PFLAG China, an NGO based in Guangzhou that supports the LGBTQ community and their families. It’s held on a cruise ship because finding a venue for a mass event in mainland China, where homosexuality is not openly discussed, remains difficult.
Until 1997, homosexuality was illegal and was only removed from an official list of mental disorders in 2001. Attitudes toward homosexuality remain generally closed in Chinese society, due in part to a traditional emphasis on marriage and having children.
Although the LGBTQ community is estimated at 70 million people and vibrant gay scenes do exist in China’s large cities, for many, it is a struggle to be accepted by their families and society. Stories are rife of people being forced into so-called conversion therapy or fake marriages.
‘Like a utopia’
PFLAG China’s executive director, Hu Zhijun, says the cruise ship event aims to give people a safe place to be themselves.
“Many gay people cannot be their true selves because of discrimination,” Hu says, “so we want to create an environment where they can at least experience being themselves for a little bit.”
“It’s the only place in China where you don’t have to stay in the closet.”
On the boat, sexuality and relationships are openly discussed. At the buffet, one man can be heard asking another when he first realized he was gay and if his parents knew.
Another participant, who did not wish to be named, likens the cruise to a “utopia.”
“It’s the only place in China where you don’t have to stay in the closet,” he says.
The theme for this year’s cruise is “Be yourself, discover a brand new world.” For Yang, it was inconceivable that he could “be himself” when he was younger.
(Read more: Filmmaker reimagines the Chinese god of gay lovers)
He felt ashamed of being gay and wanted to keep it a secret. But all that changed after he moved to Guangzhou for work eight years ago and went to a PFLAG China event.
“I was talking to one of the mothers at a picnic and she just told me, ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of, dear. Being gay isn’t anything to be ashamed of,’” he recalls.
Yang’s parents were born in the Mao Zedong era, when homosexuality was seen as a crime and illness. His father told the story of a gay colleague who was convicted for the “rape of another man,” something that had stuck in his mind for decades.
Even now, Yang says he would not have told his parents he was gay had they not put pressure on him to get married. He did not know how to tell them—until someone suggested he take them on the cruise.
It turns out to be a difficult day. Yang’s mother breaks down, calling it a bolt from the blue. At first, his father is calm. He comforts Yang’s mother and says that as long as their son is happy, they should leave him be.
But it’s clear that he’s struggling with the idea, too. They attend a talk together, but Yang’s father doesn’t stay long. He says it feels like a recruitment for a pyramid scheme.
Support at sea
At a workshop run by parents who have accepted their gay children, they hear the story of a father who wanted to change his son “back to normal” despite their advice.
The father was devastated after his son went away on a trip and never returned. He had taken his own life.
Sitting together after the workshop, Yang’s mother, usually reserved and quiet, dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief. She finds the parents’ stories moving, but she worries about her son and what might happen if he doesn’t have children.
“Who will care for him when he’s old?,” she asks.
Yang’s father, a stern figure, is convinced that his son has been influenced by the media, and quotes Mao to make his point.
“Chairman Mao said the media serves as propaganda, influencing and guiding people’s minds and opinions,” he says. “Shouldn’t the media report fewer LGBT stories, so people can stay away from this path?”
The workshop volunteers are supportive and tell Yang that his parents just need time to get used to the idea.
Dong Wanwan, a volunteer at PFLAG China, says it’s essential for parents and children to work on developing a stronger bond.
“That relationship is key,” Dong says. “If parents are willing to accept and love their children, they can move on much faster.”
(Read more: A Chinese mother’s letter to her gay daughter)
On the last day of the cruise, Yang and his parents listen to Hu, the PFLAG China director, give a speech about community support and family bonds.
In the packed theater, Yang becomes overcome with emotion. He feels like he’s no longer alone. A singer performs “Rainbow,” a song by Taiwanese pop diva A-Mei about accepting “all sorts of love.” The crowd sings along, cheering and waving rainbow flags.
Yang knows his parents will not completely give up on the idea that he might “change his mind,” but he sees that they’re more accepting after the cruise experience.
His mother wants to meet other parents of gay children, and one day, out of nowhere, his father even offers some advice for him: “You should get a boyfriend.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.