Openly gay still taboo in China's workplaces

Updated: 2013-12-29 23:34

By YU RAN in Shanghai (China Daily)

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As a gay man, Cheng Wei said the most difficult time of his life was the eight months he worked at a State-owned company.

"All the time I was there I was so worried and cautious about people discovering my sexuality," said the 29-year-old from Shanghai. "I was sure that if my co-workers found out, they would view me differently."

Cheng quit and last year started work at an advertising agency that already had several openly gay employees. He said the change made a world of difference.

"I feel much more confident about myself now," he said.

Working in a more-open environment is a dream for most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in China, according to a recent poll.

Aibai, a nonprofit organization offering support to the LGBT community, interviewed 2,161 people between January and April and found 21 percent had considered leaving, or had left a job, because of discrimination in the workplace.

Eighty-seven percent also agreed that an inclusive work environment improves relationships among employees.

"I really hope every LGBT individual can be as lucky as me," Cheng said.

Resource guide

Despite changing attitudes, sexual orientation remains largely a sensitive subject, especially in the workplace.

Yet as Chinese enterprises compete in a globalized world, Amanda Yik argues they need to do more to drive innovation and diversity of thought, as well as improve corporate governance.

"They need to provide inclusive environments for emerging or open LGBT individuals," said the senior program manager at Community Business Ltd, a Hong Kong nonprofit group focused on advancing corporate responsibility in Asia.

In September, Yik began promoting Creating an Inclusive Workplace for LGBT Employees, a resource guide she helped compile for Chinese employers.

Hu Zhijun, executive director of PFLAG China, a gay-rights NGO in Guangzhou, said more attention is being paid to LGBT issues in China today, "but most people are still reluctant to talk about sexuality or gender identity unless encouraged by others".

Based on his experience and that of his partner, he said foreign companies create more inclusive workplaces than Chinese enterprises.

"The problem is very few entrepreneurs in China realize how essential it is to enhance employee efficiency by providing an open-minded office atmosphere," Hu said.

However, he said, even some foreign companies with LGBT policies in head offices overseas have not been able to successfully export the concept to China.

"There are points in the HR rules from our office in the United States about providing LGBT people with a good working environment, but we haven't put it in the version for Chinese employees," conceded Susie Zheng, a HR manager in Shanghai for a Forbes 500 company.

"LGBT people are not very visible here," she said, adding that it would be hard to create an appropriate working environment for LGBT individuals as the stereotype they are "abnormal" still remains.

A poll this month of 3,400 people in 34 cities by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Public Opinion Research Center had almost 70 percent of respondents answering that they are against homosexuality.

Marriage pressure

That situation means many gay people are unwilling to come out.

According to the Aibai poll, only 6 percent of respondents said they are totally open about their sexuality, while 47 percent said they keep it completely hidden.

"There is an assumption of heterosexuality, so few people are openly gay," consultant Yik said.

Families also tend to put enormous pressure on offspring to get married and have children, especially after the implementation of China's one-child policy.

"The pressure to get married and procreate is strong for gay men, as they carry the family name," said Kevin Burns, another program manager at Community Business Ltd. "But lesbians feel the heat, too, as many are also the only child and parents rely on them."

He said change should begin with a small step for enterprises to be aware of talented LGBT employees, who deserve more understanding and support.

Attitudes toward the LGBT population in urban areas are changing, and a visible increase in public discussions on LGBT issues has been observed in the past 20 years.

While public pride parades are taking place in cities across the world, LGBT individuals in China often lack opportunities to celebrate diversity or openly embrace gay life. However, the 2013 International Day Against Homophobia saw more than 30 events take place nationwide, some of them relatively high profile.

"With greater public opinion posed to support the LGBT population continuously in China, hopefully more LGBT individuals will be encouraged to walk out of the closet proudly without being troubled in the near future," said attorney Zhou Dan with Shanghai Shaogang Law Firm.

Although, he added, without laws to protect gay rights, the LBGT community will continue to face discrimination.

Wang Hongyi contributed to this story.