My research examines the construction and regulation of sexuality in a context of rapid social, technological and political change. Focusing on the lives of gay men in Hainan, a socio-economically marginal island province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), I explore how local, national and global processes intersect and play out at the level of everyday life as gay men negotiate liveable lives in relation to shifting fields of people, discourses, spaces and technologies.
Over the past 40 years in the PRC, rapid urbanisation, greater geographic mobility, and increased access to information have fostered a proliferation of non-heterosexual identities, communities and ways of life. More recently, the development of internet and mobile technologies has profoundly increased opportunities for gay men to find one another and experience social and sexual intimacies. At the same time, Confucian notions of a filial responsibility to ‘continue the family line’ through heterosexual reproduction remain culturally powerful, the state has strengthened its censorship of sexual diversity in the media, and cuts to public welfare have entrenched the need to have children as a source of care in later life. Further, socio-economic disparities along regional and urban/rural lines make living non-heterosexual lives in certain sites easier than in others. While aspects of these issues have been explored within the literature on non-heterosexual lives in the PRC, existing work has largely focused on major urban contexts.
Based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, including 30 in-depth interviews, I am exploring a range of practices and processes through which gay men in Hainan find one another, develop feelings of commonality, navigate the rural, urban and digital spaces in which they live and variously contest, conform to and accommodate the dominant orientation of their lives toward heterosexual marriage and reproduction. I aim to show how these dynamics entail complex entanglements of discourse, technology, desire, embodiment and material relations of co-dependence.
As such, I argue for an expanded conception of sexuality that looks beyond the individual, human subject and towards ecologies of power and possibility that shape what counts as a liveable life; these are social-and-material and involve movements through space and time together with others.