HONG KONG, May 17 (UPI) -- Zhang Yilun wears dark clothing. Her pants are baggy, her hair closely cropped, looks like a hip-hop or skate boy. Zhang, a 22-year-old student at Fudan University in Shanghai, is one of a growing number of what in China have come to be called "tomboys," young women who choose to dress and act like boys.
Buoyed by celebrities such as Li Yuchun, a former champion of the "American Idol"-like singing competition "Super Girl," the tomboy trend is pushing issues of gender and sexual preference to the fore in China where homosexuality was outlawed until 1997.
There is no exact Chinese translation of "tomboy." Lucetta Kam, a researcher in Hong Kong, said the definition is given when the girls display behavior that, in China, is considered masculine. This includes rough ball games, fighting and using crass language and using cigarettes and alcohol. Paying a bill is also considered a masculine act in China.
"Tomboy as a fashion in popular culture is good for us," said Lai Yuen Ki Franco, who teaches anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lai, who is openly lesbian, said that a decade ago, when she was an undergraduate, she was less accepted. She couldn't openly be in a relationship with a woman on campus. Her parents pressured her to date boys. When she tried to create a student group for gay and lesbian students she was rebuffed.
"The situation is becoming better," Lai said. "Tomboys nowadays are luckier than me. At least now we are not embarrassed now when I hold hands with my girlfriend on the street."
Although lesbians, by most estimates, make up less than 5 percent of the Chinese population, the tomboy fashion trend has made a lesbian lifestyle more accessible to a new generation of Chinese women.
Li Edy, an undergraduate at Hong Kong Baptist University, started dressing like a tomboy in high school and soon entered into romantic relationships with girls.
"They treat me like a boy," Li said. "Some of them come to my room late at night, others call me to come out and drink and then to take them home after they get drunk."
Li has been with her current girlfriend, Alice, for almost a year. Alice, who refused to give her last name out of fear of tipping off her mother to her new lifestyle, said she had never dated a woman before Li.
"I was not a lesbian," Alice said, "but Edy treats love seriously. A lot of boys now are too wooden, feminine and immature. It's hard for girls to find boyfriends in Hong Kong."
Although opposition to the tomboy trend and the movement for equal rights for sexual minorities continues to come from religious groups -- the Society for Truth Light, a Christian sect in Hong Kong, maintains a strong anti-gay lobby – the strongest resistance tomboys face is often from their families.
Li recently moved out of her family's home in Hong Kong after her mother reacted negatively to news of Alice. Alice, on the other hand, hasn't found the courage to tell her mother about Li, at least not after she warned her to stay away from boy-looking girls like Li.
Zhang Yilun, whose parents regularly plead with her to give up the boy clothes and go back to being a girl, faces the same dilemma.
"I think the society accepts me," Zhang said, "all except for my parents."