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Lesbians in China: less "threatening" than gay men?

A new play in Beijing has China's emerging gay community buzzing.

“The Chinese public look at lesbian relationships as more spiritual,” said Kwan, although he added that he doesn’t think that means an opera about men in love wouldn’t have been allowed.

“Maybe not a film or TV series, but an opera or stage drama, I hope it would be possible,” he said.

Straight people just can’t believe that women can have sex with each other, says Eva Lee, a lesbian activist in Beijing who originally hails from Macao. They just think of lesbians as being emotionally intimate but not physically intimate.

“The lesbian story is less offensive to mainstream society,” she said. “When people see two men in love they only think of them having sex. They don’t treat lesbians seriously because they don’t understand how women can have sex without a man, without a penis.”

As a well as having an out director, the production company has hired well-known sexologist Li Yinhe as a media spokesperson to explain the homosexual context. Her job seems to be to spread the idea that historically China was tolerant of homosexuality.

“Ms. Li’s main point is that in the old times China was much more open towards homosexuality,” said Kwan. "Liangxian Ban" was written 350 years ago at the beginning of the Qing dynasty. “One husband would have many wives and these women would sometimes have lesbian relationships.”

According to Harvard University’s Professor Patrick Hanan, who has translated many of Li Yu’s works, the story was likely based on the situation in the playwright’s own family after his first wife became quite taken with his new concubine. Li Yu, thought by many to be bisexual himself, penned several other plays that had gay love and gay sex themes, although "Lianxian Ban" is his only lesbian tale.

The opera concludes with the two women marrying the same man and, on the wedding night, slipping off with each other leaving the husband on stage looking lost. The audience erupts into laughter and applause.