Homonormative Desires: Identities, Masculinities, and Sexual Hierarchies in Urban China

Homonormative Desires: Identities, Masculinities, and Sexual Hierarchies in Urban China
Zhiqiu Benson Zhou


This dissertation examines how China’s involvement in transnational LGBTQ activism, adaptation and innovation of queer media technologies, and the global pink economy have influenced queer men’s understandings of selfhood, sexual desires, and the relationships among queer subjects. It is based on extensive fieldwork in Beijing and digital ethnography on China’s cyberspaces from 2017 to 2018. I discovered that transnational efforts of activism, technological innovation, and global capital have expanded China’s queer spaces on- and offline. They have also facilitated queer people’s self-acceptance, and increased opportunities for queer connections. However, I argue that these socioeconomic changes have also created new sexual norms and pushed a singular way of being gay, which divides and sexually hierarchizes queer men. As a result, the new norms have produced or intensified remarginalization among already marginalized groups.

My findings reveal that new sexual norms are being coded in and reflected through queer men’s everyday practices—from their tactics of identification to expressions of sexual desires. By examining Chinese queer men’s communicative and linguistic practices, I demonstrate that they have shifted away from adopting the postsocialist identity of tongzhi, or “comrade,” as a means of self-identification. Instead, influenced by increasing information on sexualities, growing activism, and consumerist cultures, Chinese queer men in post-2010 China have deployed various communicative tactics to make sense of their sexualities. This change has ostensibly diversified queer male communities, yet it reflects the exclusion, or even hierarchization, among Chinese queer men. Many queer men have adopted different terms, and constructed distinct identities, in order to distance themselves from others.

Alongside these practices, by analyzing their discourses of desires and daily performances, I have discovered that Chinese queer men are hierarchized on the basis of factors including body types, sexual roles, race and ethnicity, and class. Today, businesses in the beauty industries are targeting queer men as major consumers, and have been espousing desirable bodies marked by muscularity and fitness. Thus, the desirable bodies in queer spaces are becoming standardized. They also obsess over masculinities, as signified by sexual labels. Queer men who self-label as, or are perceived as, 0s (the passive and receptive role in same-sex relationships) are often excluded, including exclusion from 1s’ (the active role’s) desires. This exclusion is intensified on dating apps where people filtering is encouraged and validated. In addition, they contest white supremacy by showing Sino/Han-centric desire in a global context. Yet the Sinocentric desire is a double-edged sword, because they re-racialize people of other races or ethnicities, such as black men and Southeast Asians. This reinforces global racial inequality. Moreover, depoliticized as active and valuable consumers, many Chinese queer men view it as their responsibility to seek self-improvement and actualization through consumerist practices, so as to climb the ladder of sexual hierarchies.

This project contributes to transnational queer studies. First, it reveals how transnational capitalism has shaped Chinese queer cultures through the flow of capital, people, and ideas. Second, it brings to light the negative effects of many queer efforts that have been deemed progressive, e.g., normalizing sexual desires and hierarchizing queer subjects. Lastly, explicating the emergence of sexual hierarchies within gay communities provides direction for future queer politics in pursuing social justice in non-Western societies.


Zhiqiu Benson Zhou

Defended in


PhD defended at

Northwestern University


Social Sciences




Gender and Identity