One of the most striking things about Professor Wei Wei, other than his broad smile and quick-fire speech, is his directness. His willingness to challenge mainstream views, and voice unconventional opinions, belies his Western training as a social researcher. But he also has the easygoing, jovial nature common to Chinese academics.
A fitting juxtaposition, it turns out, for someone who first explored his own sexuality in the West, but has made the study of Chinese queer spaces his life’s work.
'I came out while at graduate school in the States. In China I was aware of my homosexuality, but never explored it, but in Chicago so many students and professors were out and proud.'
Inspired and encouraged, Professor Wei began to ponder writing his dissertation on queer culture in his homeland, despite being only too aware of the limited resources available. He decided to focus on the activities of a gay organisation in Chengdu, which was working with the Government on HIV/AIDS prevention, and spent six months in the city conducting fieldwork.
Focusing on urban ethnography, he visited gay bars, saunas and other safe spaces to observe, meet and understand queer Chengdu. For Professor Wei, it was his first time experiencing LGBTQ culture in China. It was quite the learning curve, particularly in terms of social interactions with other gay people.
'Chinese gay bars have a completely different set-up to those in the West – people arrive as groups, and sit together. It’s very difficult for people to meet strangers in Chinese gay bars, or for individuals to penetrate these tight groups. Even the drag shows were different – Chinese costumes, Chinese opera.'
Professor Wei was the only student in his class to be awarded a distinction for his dissertation, Going Public: The Production and Transformation of Queer Space in Contemporary Chengdu. Despite his success, he was keen to return to China and make a difference.
His dissertation was published in Chinese with a limited run of 3,000 copies – which quickly sold out. Since then, he has published dozens of articles in English and Chinese, as well as another book. He also taught China’s first queer studies course, which examined various disciplines, from film studies to human geography, from a queer perspective.
His journey has not been easy. Chinese academics are heavily dependent on government funding, and anything LGBTQ-related, with the exception of HIV/AIDS prevention, was unlikely to make the cut. 'I almost gave up, but I kept publishing articles, books. Finally, I applied for government funding in 2015 for a project researching gay households in Shanghai and Sichuan. I got that grant and was able to interview 36 lesbian and gay families.'
Professor Wei believes that, when it comes to accepting LGBTQ relationships, Chinese pragmatism is winning out. 'I’m optimistic,’ he grins. ‘The Government is worried about the birth rate, yet lots of gay couples are keen to have children. I honestly believe China will open up in this regard, to legitimise gay families.'
'The queer family has the potential to develop another type of care system,' he continues. 'Alternative care systems and new community structures will be an important part of the solution to the problem of an ageing population. This is how queer people can contribute. Going beyond biological family structures.'
Couldn’t gay marriage also help solve the problem? 'As a means to fight for gay visibility, gay marriage works. But in terms of its actual social effect, I’m not so sure. Marriage doesn’t solve everything. What really matters is the attachment, the ganqing, between people.'
With the rise in assisted reproductive technology and the introduction of gay marriage legislation around the world, Professor Wei has noticed a degree of heteronormativity creeping into Chinese queer life in the same way it has in the West.
'There’s an association between biological reproduction and private property – "my family, my children." In the '70s and '80s, queer families were often created through adoption of children from other ethnic groups, other cultures. This was more utopian – a kinship based on community rather than biology. To some queer theorists, gay marriage and gay couples having their own biological children, is a step backwards in terms of liberation.'
By raising the profile of queer culture and how it impacts mainstream society, Professor Wei is at the cutting edge of a discipline which is still niche even in the West. His next step is to convene a conference in Shanghai next year that will bring together LGBTQ academics from various disciplines with a view to develop China’s first ever LGBTQ research centre, and a goal of bringing an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary queer studies. He has also come out publicly.
'I want to be a role model for gay kids, and for my students and other colleagues. This is why I want to establish a research centre. I want to contribute to change.'