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Just what is Tongzhi?
Tongzhi is the most popular contemporary Chinese word for lesbians, bisexuals, and gay people. The word, which has very positive historical references, was a Chinese translation from the Soviet communist term comrade. It was appropriated by a Hong Kong gay activist in 1989 for the first Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in Hong Kong by its organizers, who wanted to employ an indigenous representation of same-sex eroticism. The term 'homosexual’was inappropriate because of its use as a medical term denoting sickness and pathology. Within a few years, tongzhi became a widely used term in Hong Kong and Taiwan and is often used interchangeably with the English term gay.
But terms such as gay, lesbian, and queer are Anglo-Saxon in origin, with specific histories that cannot capture the indigenous features of Chinese same-sex relationships. Tongzhi implies and includes much more. S/Mers, transvestites, and other fetishists who are members of the Chinese sexual counterculture who may be quite heterosexual are also tongzhi. And the term has meaning beyond the sexual: it embodies a strong sentiment for integrating the sexual (legitimizing same-sex love), the political (sharing the goals of fighting heterosexism) and the cultural (reappropriating their Chinese identity).
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