LGBT rights have slowly improved over the years in China, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and declassified as a mental disorder in 2001.
Sixth Tone sat down with some older Chinese men and own in the LGBT community, who say finding companionship and acceptance can be daunting.
“I couldn’t be happier with my life post-retirement,” said Zhang Guowei, a 76-year-old bisexual man who was a doctor in the army until 1994.
Since 2005, Guowei has been living with his boyfriend Wu, who is 40 years younger, in a government-provided apartment in Changde, where he receives a monthly pension of $1,453 as a former military officer.
A dozen veterans between their 60s and 90s have settled down in the 10-story building, where some live alone or with their loved ones.
Guowei has gained the support of his ex-wife and two daughters when he first came out as bisexual in 2003.
His neighbors, who are fellow retired army cadres, have also come to accept him.
“Being gay or not, it doesn’t change the way I see him,” said Lu Shize, 74, who had never met an out gay or bisexual man before. “We are in our 70s; what’s more important than being happy and healthy?”
For many elders, like Wen Xiaojun, 56, who is single, being childless is not a major issue.
A former civil servant, Xiaojun retired in November and rented an apartment in Sanya, on the island of Hainan.
“I still feel young and restless,” he told Sixth Tone. “Being childless makes it easy for me to travel after retirement.”
LGBT seniors also want to be more independent, hoping to do more of what they love during their days of retirement.
Like many people in the LGBT community, most dates nowadays come from online, but even that is not a walk in the park.
“Younger generations can build a relationship quickly by kissing or having sex soon after they meet offline,” explains Xiaojun, who uses a gay social app called Blued to meet other men. “But we want something more spiritual and stable.”
Ah Shan, 62, can relate. He’s financially stable and owns an apartment in Guangzhou, receiving a pension of $727 per month.
But the 62-year-old has been single for four years and he aims to change that soon.
Ah Shan has been working on a gay oral history project, interviewing more than 60 gay men in Guangzhou, aged 60 to 90, who have lived through some of China’s milestones, including the Cultural Revolution and economic reform era.
Many of the men are married and choose not to come out to their loved ones.
“They go to this particular park to chat with other gay men in the daytime to release their emotions, but when the sun goes down, they have to return home to bear their family responsibilities,” Ah Shan said.
He himself never came out to his parents, who died before Ah Shan could reveal the truth.
Compared to gay and bi men, older women have a difficult time being forthcoming about their sexuality.
“Chinese women are in a weak position in the family, which doesn’t allow them to speak out for themselves,” said Yu Shi, 45, who lives in Chengdu with her 40-year-old girlfriend. “Chinese people are very concerned with saving face, and they think it’s a loss of face to get a divorce if you’re already a grandparent.”
Wang Anke, a 50-year-old bisexual woman who lives happily with her husband of 26 years in Beijing, said most older lesbians and bisexual women she knows aren’t optimistic about their senior years.
“They’re lonely and lack emotional care,” said Anke.
She added that many women would rather live by themselves instead of in a nursing home where they’re afraid of being who they truly are.
Some LGBT seniors support dedicated nursing homes, but Ah Shan is against the idea of separate services, which he calls a “safe place.”
“What we really need is for the overall environment to allow us to live comfortably in the community,” he said.