GUANGZHOU, China -- As people in this southern Chinese city prepare for bed each night, Roger Meng is just getting started. Alone at a desk in his tiny fifth-floor apartment, the 26-year-old computer whiz turns on his laptop and dives into the virtual gay community he created 18 months ago.
Eleven o'clock is rush hour at "Guangzhou Comrade" -- www.gztz.org -- Meng's Web page for Chinese homosexuals. Away from the office where their sexuality remains a secret, several hundred gay men connect to the Chinese-language site every evening, conversing in chat rooms, scanning personal ads and reading articles about homosexual life in other countries.
Listening to classical Chinese music and drinking Pearl River Beer, Meng answers e-mails and edits news stories from his correspondents around China. Friends from as far as Beijing help monitor chat rooms for politically sensitive or sexually explicit language, which might provoke censors. About 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., when the mosquitoes begin biting, Meng stumbles into bed for a few hours of sleep before rising to attend his day job at a local information technology firm.
Guangzhou Comrade -- homosexuals use the communist title to identify themselves -- is one of 150 sites for gays that have emerged in the past two years as the Internet has begun to take hold in China. Since its launch in August 1998, Meng's Web page has attracted more than 1 million visitors.
The sites' popularity illustrates how the world's newest medium is reshaping one of its oldest cultures. Collectively, the Web pages are accelerating the development of a nascent gay community in a country where homosexuality remains largely taboo and the leadership has little tolerance for independent organizations.
Through Internet sites, e-mail and bulletin boards, gay Chinese -- who are estimated to number as many as 50 million -- can communicate in ways previously impossible. They can find dates online and publish gay fiction, which would never be allowed into print. They can even make a case for civil rights.
Dilemma for the regime
This new power presents a dilemma for the Communist Party, which views the Internet as both an opportunity and a threat. The regime needs the Web to help propel the nation's economy but knows the information and communication it provides undermine its authority.
In recent weeks, Beijing has again tried to control the Internet, threatening to punish users who release "state secrets" online and requiring companies to register encrypted software. But as the gay presence has grown on the Web, China's authoritarian leaders have done nothing to stop it. The lesson in cyberspace is the same as in the rest of China today. As long as people do not directly challenge the Communist Party, they are often free to do as they wish.
"I think the attitude now is keep one eye open and one eye closed," says Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a leading authority on gender issues here. "The government doesn't want to directly confront them and make them angry."
Guides to gay life
The most popular gay Web sites, such as Guangzhou Comrade and Red Dust -- www.nease.net/(tilde) jwind/), provide visitors with sophisticated survival guides for homosexual life here.
Red Dust offers maps of major Chinese cities, showing where to meet gay people. Sites in Beijing range from well-known gay bars such as Half and Half to more obscure spots, including the third-floor bathroom of a shopping center across from the Foreign Ministry.
Although most Web pages are self-funded, Red Dust earns about $50 a month through advertisements, including one for King Solomon's Casino, an online gambling site.
Some sites offer links to pornography, which violates Chinese law. But in a continuing sign that the Internet is growing too fast for the government to contain, the Web pages remain open and accessible.
For many homosexuals, cyberspace has been an epiphany. Men describe tapping the words "gay" and "China" into the Yahoo! search engine and watching in awe as a new world spreads across their screens.
Most use the Web as a matchmaker. Instead of seeking sex in public lavatories, gay men with modems can search personal ads for people with similar tastes and hobbies.
Preventing social gaffes
The Internet can also prevent confusion and embarrassment in a culture where straight girls walk hand-in-hand and boys drape their arms around each other.
For Mingshui Xiushu, a well-known writer and occasional actress, attempts at dating other women were humiliating. While at drama school in Shanghai, she fell for a couple who she mistakenly thought were lesbians because they seemed inseparable and always held hands.
"I tried to kiss one of them, but I didn't succeed," Mingshui recalled recently in her studio apartment in Shanghai. "They were quite upset."
Her life began to change in 1996. An American man named Paul, who loved her and with whom she shared an apartment, gave Mingshui the address of a Web site where she could meet other lesbians. About 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., while Paul slept, she would tiptoe to the computer and log on.
"Before you find this address, you feel you are the only one," said Mingshui, 30. "Then I realized, 'There are thousands of people like me.' This is a big discovery."
Last year, with the help of e-mail, Mingshui met Wan Ru, who worked as an accountant for a Japanese airline company. In October, they were married in Shanghai in what is thought to be China's first lesbian wedding.
A same-sex wedding -- which the Chinese government does not recognize -- was Wan's idea. The 23-year-old Christian longed for the stability of marriage and wanted to celebrate it with a formal ceremony.
The wedding was held in an old Russian Orthodox church that now serves as a French restaurant. Fearing interference, the couple limited the guest list to about 25 and never told the owners there was no groom.
By all accounts, it was a lovely ceremony.
The brides wore satin wedding gowns and pink and white roses in their hair. The menu included salmon carpaccio and veal tenderloin. Natalie Cole's version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light" played in the background.
Standing beneath stained glass windows before gay and lesbian friends as well as family members, the two women recited their vows and exchanged rings as a Chinese movie director officiated. When they tried to lift each other's veils to kiss, they bumped foreheads and began laughing.
"It was very touching," recalls Edward Zhuang, the restaurant's assistant manager, who thought he was the host to a traditional wedding until he noticed wall decorations with pictures of the two women together.
Although the couple held the ceremony in a public place, they kept it private to avoid unwelcome attention. Those not specifically invited were told to stay away.
Wan's mother, sister and brother-in-law attended. Mingshui didn't tell her 70-year-old mother, who does not know she is a lesbian.
"I don't want to destroy the rest of her life," Mingshui said.
Homosexuality has a lengthy and somewhat open history in China. The classic Chinese novel "The Dream of Red Mansions" features a highly suggestive scene between an opera singer who plays female characters and a male admirer. During the Qing Dynasty, restaurants offered young waiters to their male patrons. Some emperors slept with boys.
In modern times, China has often punished homosexuality or viewed it as a mental illness. Police routinely arrested gay men for soliciting in public restrooms. A homosexual who was discovered by his colleagues at work could forget about promotion.
Attitudes toward homosexuality have been relaxing as China has had more contact with the outside world and the regime has gradually retreated from its citizens' personal lives.
Popular, imported television programs such as the U.S. prime-time soap "Dynasty," have featured openly gay characters. In 1997, the government removed the "hooliganism" provision under which police charged homosexuals for soliciting sex in restrooms. And in August, prosecutors in the southwestern province of Sichuan dropped charges against men operating a homosexual brothel because they couldn't find a section of the criminal code addressing gay prostitution.
Web site begun
Taking advantage of this openness, Meng pushed the envelope in 1998 and built his Web page. He persuaded one of his friends, Steven Shi, a popular Guangzhou radio disc jockey, to set an example and do the same. Meng, an earnest and thoughtful man who seems older than his 26 years, posted pictures of himself as well as a personal essay and musings on a recent trip to Hong Kong.
Shi, a 28-year-old with a subversive sense of humor, became a digital poster boy for gay life and a "Dear Abby" for lonely hearts in the Chinese hinterland. After his picture appeared online, e-mails streamed in from as far as Kashgar, an old Silk Road city on the western edge of China. Readers asked about everything from gay sex to how to meet a boyfriend in a small town.
Although Shi would have lost his job had he come out on air, he dropped frequent hints between songs by Madonna and Alanis Morissette during his 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. slot.
After playing a tune by the Pet Shop Boys, a gay British pop group, Shi extolled the virtues of coming out and chastised the band for not doing so earlier.
"Lots of my male audience can tell I'm gay," said Shi, who paid no price for his innuendo. "My boss doesn't listen to my program very often, he only cares about the ratings."
From virtual to real
In December, Meng and Shi took Guangzhou Comrade one step further and tried to make the virtual community a real one by throwing a Christmas party at an obscure bar called Apple Shop. Meng posted ads and a map on the Web. Shi served as master of ceremonies, overseeing a karaoke contest and games of musical chairs and charades. The party drew 100 people, most of whom had only met before online.
Despite the increasing freedom gay people enjoy in China, limits and risks remain. Mingshui has written fiction about lesbian life, but mainland publishers won't touch it. Meng, whose colleagues don't know he is gay, pulled his photo off the Internet late last year after a fellow worker mentioned the Web page at lunch.
"He is a guy I don't trust at all," said Meng. "He can ruin my career."
A long way to civil rights
Given the continued insecurity, some gay people see their eventual salvation in civil rights, which do not exist here.
Wan Yanhai helped set up the nation's first AIDS hot line with the Ministry of Health in 1992. After he tried to reach out to homosexuals through a discussion group, officials accused him of promoting promiscuity and human rights. The ministry cut his pay, transferred him to another job and forced him out of his dorm room.
Anyone who wants to read Wan's side of the story can click on http: //aizhi.homepage.com, where he accuses the ministry of discrimination and demands compensation. The government has not blocked the site.
Wan continues to publish a newsletter and to provide AIDS information through an unapproved, nongovernmental organization. He hopes to see gay rights addressed in Chinese law.
The sort of coordinated community required to achieve that goal seems years away. Many Chinese homosexuals are too busy enjoying their newfound freedom to spend time in strategy sessions.
Last month, a group of lesbians who met almost exclusively online sat in a Shanghai restaurant drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and laughing about their lives. One of the women, a 23-year-old city police officer who goes by the name Fran, has a short haircut and could have easily been mistaken for a man. After returning from the bathroom, she described how a woman inside had tried to direct her to the men's room.
"Fran always has this kind of problem," said Rachel, a 30-year-old corporate talent scout, as the table broke up laughing.
What years ago might have been a painful experience was now a punch line among friends. Like most gay Chinese, the women prefer to savor their camaraderie rather than fight for civil rights.
"Really fierce and violent struggle for us doesn't work in China," said Roby, a production manager in a fiberglass company. "That only draws the government's wrath."
"We're living happily under their unclear policy," she said. "You have to wait until the time is right to speak and stand up for your rights in China."