I remember the first time a student came out to me. She stayed after class one day, my second year in China and kinda nervously walked towards the teachers desk.
“Becky,” she said quietly. “I want to tell you something.”
I could see this was something important so I put down my bag and looked at her.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well…” she paused. “I’m gay.”
“And?” I said expecting her to say some classmates bullied her or she was rejected by her parents because of how nervous she looked.
“And?” she asked. “Nothing more. That’s it.”
“Oh!” I said. “You just wanted to tell me?” Still a little confused why she looked so nervous.
“Yeah,” she said. “You are the first teacher I ever told.”
“Well, thanks for trusting me…” I said but I wasn’t quite finished. Because I already knew. I thought everyone obviously knew. I mean, it wasn’t like she was hiding it. If you looked up the stereotypical lesbian portrayed in the media, she was a duplicate. Short, boy hair cut, baggy man skater style clothes, no makeup, a bulky watch and big clunky glasses.
“But…surely your other teachers must know,” I continued. “I mean…I did already.”
“Oh, you did?” she said surprised. “How?”
“Well,” I said gesturing to her clothes and overall look. “You don’t really hide it.”
“Because you’re a foreigner,” she said. “You’re more used to lesbians. Chinese teachers wouldn’t think it. That’s why I wanted to tell you. I knew you wouldn’t criticize me.”
Since that day I have had a lot of Chinese students and friends tell me they are gay and almost all of them tell me the same thing: While it may be secret from their family and friends, it’s okay to tell me, an American. They assume that I am used to it and won’t judge them. (A correct assumption.)
And in the world of badminton, it is no different. Thanks to my status of “outsider” I have been let into the secret world of gay badminton.
And what a big world it is! There are gay groups in cities all over China. Not only that, there are regular gay tournaments with hundreds of participants. They aren’t openly gay tournaments though, even if some of the players are. They don’t advertise, print up t-shirts or hang rainbow flags everywhere. To be let into the group you need to be invited by someone. And if you take pictures they look like any other badminton tournament in China so you can share them on social media without worry.
I think avid players, yet traditional people, like my coach, would be shocked to find such a large group of gay people playing so “openly.” After a 20-plus year badminton career he thinks he knows pretty much all there is in the Chinese badminton world. But not so. Even I keep it a secret from him because while everyone is open to me, they are not open in the badminton world. It’s a male-dominated sport, a straight male dominated sport, and they don’t want to be ostracized by the larger badminton community.
But as an American I have been included in their world. I feel really grateful they have allowed me to join them. One reason is they are really amazing badminton players. The ranks of both the top male and female players include gay people. But another reason is I really like being a part of a group that is open and free.
See, I play with some of them in other places and they are always a bit guarded. Outside the group everyone is just friends or brothers. In the group everyone is sisters, queens, princesses and husbands. I’m the brother and they are sisters. They can act as they want. They can speak in a higher lilting voice, They can grab each others asses, talk openly of their relationships and experiences and play some killer badminton. Basically, they just get to be themselves and I can see what a relief it is for them to “take their mask off” a few hours every week.
And I can’t help but love that it is badminton that has brought them all together. I asked if other sports had secret gay groups, like basketball but they said no. One friend said gay guys just really like badminton. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but hell yeah! I hope that when being gay is accepted in China that the badminton community can be known as one of the pioneering sports of acceptance. Perhaps a bit of a pipe dream but if any sport can do it it will be my precious badminton.