When Taylor Le Cui came out as gay in China in 2015, he was punished by the university he worked at for teaching his students about gender and sexuality.
Even though his students loved his lessons on rainbow communities – one student told him after a class he was “no longer an ignorant soul” – he was told by his superiors that homosexuality was a highly sensitive topic that didn’t belong in the classroom.
Taylor was forced to sign a written agreement which stated he would never talk about queer issues in the classroom again.
Taylor Le Cui. Photo: Supplied
In 2017, he moved to New Zealand and recently finished his PhD in education at the University of Auckland.
And although living in Aotearoa has allowed Taylor to follow his passion of researching queer issues, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
“My experience in New Zealand has been significantly influenced by my ethnicity and migration status,” Taylor says.
“I found that people in the Chinese community [in New Zealand] often have a very limited understanding of queer identities.
“As a result, I had to carefully manage or even hide my sexuality from Chinese people, such as Chinese landlords and Chinese people in the church.”
Taylor’s journey inspired him to research the experience of other queer Chinese international students living in New Zealand.
This is the first research that has been done on queer Chinese international students in New Zealand and has been published by the European Journal of Education, a world leading journal in educational studies.
For the research, Taylor conducted 15 in-depth interviews with queer international students from China who were now studying in New Zealand.
A lot of the people Taylor interviewed shared a similar experience to his own journey.
‘I can breathe the air of freedom’
When asked why they decided to move to Aotearoa to pursue a higher education, most participants of the research mentioned pressure from family and a homophobic social environment in China.
In 2013, New Zealand became the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to legalise same sex marriage.
This is one of the reasons why in China, New Zealand is viewed as a queer-friendly country.
In the research, this vision of New Zealand proved to be somewhat accurate, with all of the participants describing their campus as queer-friendly.
“In New Zealand, I can breathe the air of freedom,” says Liu, one of the participants in the research.
This queer-friendly environment allowed many of the participants to come out and gain a deeper understanding of their own identity.
Yan, another one of the research participants, said when they lived in China, they didn’t understand homosexuality because of a lack of resources and information.
“When I first came to NZ, … my sexuality weighed on me like a mountain and was the source of all my pain,” says Yan, 26.
“Slowly, after opening up, I got rid of that [feeling]. The friendly environment of my university and the support of people allowed me to accept who I was.”
The ‘ethnic closet’
Despite the queer-friendly environment on campus, queer Chinese international students still face challenges.
Taylor says they are subject to the dual oppression of the “ethnic closet” – a term he uses to highlight how sexuality and ethnicity intersect.
“First, students' racial/ethnic identity makes them easier targets for heteronormative microaggressions on campus, preventing them from claiming a full queer identity,” Taylor says.
“Second, encounters with their own ethnic group also have a significant and often negative impact on students' identity management, exerting social pressure and even inducing self-censorship.”
Heteronormative assumptions on campus
In the research, two participants shared similar stories which involved being corrected to use opposite-gender pronouns when referring to their partner.
In both examples, the people correcting the participants had assumed they were heterosexual and lacked English proficiency.
Ma, another participant of the survey, shared a story which involved her being verbally attacked by a stranger during a pride parade organised by the university she studies at.
“My English wasn't very good at the time,” Ma says.
“I freaked out completely … I came to realise that my imagination of New Zealand was just a fantasy and that not every New Zealander considers being queer OK.
“It turns out that even in New Zealand, you can still be attacked for being queer.”
Stigma within the Chinese community in NZ
Much like Taylor’s own background, some of the participants shared stories of experiencing stigma and marginalisation when interacting with the Chinese community within New Zealand.
Ma shared their experience of dealing with homophobia when their education agent, who is Chinese, shared a petition that resisted sexuality education in Aotearoa – claiming schools are teaching children to be homosexual and transgender.
“I was shocked and realised that he didn't accept queer people,” Ma says.
“I was living with my partner at that time, and he asked me about my relationship with her. I had to hide my sexuality and told him that I was living with a relative.”
“I was worried that he wouldn't take my consultation seriously if he knew about my sexuality,” Ma says.
Broadening rainbow inclusion
Taylor hopes that his research subverts the narrative that moving to ‘the West’ is important for people in marginalised communities seeking liberation.
In the conclusion of his research, he writes “despite institutional support for the queer community in New Zealand higher education, New Zealand campuses remain heteronormative spaces”.
“This is particularly true for Chinese queer international students who must navigate two interconnected systems of oppression – heteronormativity and racial/ethnic politics.”
Taylor says more work needs to be done to fully include Chinese queer international students in New Zealand.
“This can be achieved by increasing the visibility of students who experience multiple disadvantages and educating people about the particular challenges faced by these groups,” he says.
“Highlighting marginalisation through an intersectional lens could help to challenge the ways that heteronormativity and systemic racism are entrenched and intertwined in institutional practice and interpersonal interaction on campus.”
"It’s still painful for me to revisit, because it was something that was supposed to be precious.”
“If I hadn't moved to small town New Zealand, my life would be a lot smaller.”
"For some people, chosen family is all they have."