LGBT Life in China: Obstacles and Inspiration

By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney

We realized that things would be a bit different on our recent trip to China to talk about love, marriage, and LGBT equality when organizers of our first event told us that they would not be publicizing it on the internet for fear the government would shut it down.  Yet people came, and we talked honestly and openly about our lives and our hopes for the future – and the importance of our dignity as LGBT people.  Homosexuality was first documented in China over 2,600 years ago; yet today coming out is very difficult, and homosexuality is something that many Chinese do not know or talk about.  An extraordinary group of LGBT activists is working to change all of that and improving the lives of Chinese LGBT people in critical ways.

China decriminalized homosexuality 20 years ago, and in 2001 the country removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. There are gay bars and LGBT community organizations in larger cities, and Shanghai Pride held its 9th annual celebration this year.  Victims of conversion therapy have won two recent lawsuits against the institutions that inflicted it upon them.  Last year, a gay couple brought an unsuccessful marriage equality lawsuit that garnered significant publicity.  The sixth annual AIDS Walk Great Wall (the only AIDS walk you can see from outer space) took place this fall.

However, China is currently undergoing a period of extensive repression in which those is power are attempting to exert more control over people’s lives and the internal workings of the government.  One activist even termed it a “second Cultural Revolution,” referring to the period from the 1966-1976 led by Mao Zedong in which millions of people were persecuted for failing to conform to party ideology.

A number of activists explained to us that the crackdown is not aimed particularly at LGBT people – it’s a broader effort to exert social and political control – but it’s hurting the LGBT community, especially given the current importance of public education, outreach, and building community.  The government in the past year has forbidden depictions of homosexuality among many other things in television, films, and online broadcast media.  New regulations severely hamper the work of foreign NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in China, including those who support local LGBT organizations.  Government security has interfered with public LGBT events.  One activist told us that they had to “play Tai Chi” with the government, referring to the centuries-old Chinese art of movement that involves sensing what’s going on around you and knowing how and when to assert and when to yield.

The Tai Chi metaphor may apply more generally to LGBT life in China given how queer people articulated to us the particular challenges with respect to family expectations and social conformity they had to negotiate.  Many people in telling their personal stories illuminated how difficult it was to come out because of the society’s lack of familiarity with what it means to be LGBT, limited means of getting information, and strong cultural and familial pressures to marry a person of the opposite sex and have children.  After all, as America in the 1960s and 70s was undergoing the sexual revolution and the Stonewall riots marked the symbolic beginning of the modern American LGBT movement, the repressive Cultural Revolution was taking place in China, and Chinese people have not had fully open access to media and information in the years since.

One person put it starkly, saying that he believed the majority of Chinese people simply fulfill expected roles in their lives – father, mother, son, daughter – and lacked the ability to exercise agency over their lives.  In one discussion group, a gay man who had once found love with a high school classmate until his parents cut off the relationship, seemed saddened and resigned as he talked about possibly giving up on coming out and instead entering into a heterosexual marriage to please his parents.  Many in the group seemed to understand exactly why he would do that. Coming out to parents seemed particularly formidable even for some leaders of LGBT organizations, and more than one person told us that if they came out to their parents, their parents might have a heart attack and die.  In this environment, coming out in the workplace in the face of possible stigma and discrimination can be very challenging as well.

One leader likened internalized homophobia to the severe air pollution for which many big Chinese cities are infamous. He exhorted the group:  “We must cleanse ourselves of the pollution of homophobia, just as we need to clean the air we breathe.” The facilitator of that meeting asked us to lead a simple call and response, repeating:  “It’s great to be gay.  It’s great to be just the way you are.”  The amazing Beijing LGBT Center and other organizations are working tirelessly to train counselors, therapists, and other health care professionals so that they can help LGBT clients rather than shun them.

Yet other LGBT people told very different stories, and people’s lives seemed to differ widely based on where they lived, their education and employment, and their access to international travel and media.  A middle-aged gay man who had been married to a lesbian for years to please their parents told us he had finally come out to his sibling and moved in together with his boyfriend.  Others described family coming out experiences that sounded very similar to successful American coming out stories.  Another man and his partner were anticipating the birth of their first child through a surrogate in America and would soon be traveling to the States to marry when the child was born, although China would not recognize the marriage.  His parents were looking forward to having a grandchild, and he seemed unconcerned about what his neighbors might think.  In fact, we met the founder of a Chinese business that arranges for couples, both gay and straight, to have children through surrogates living outside the country.

We also met with members of PFLAG China, a vibrant nationwide organization with active groups in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, as well as in more remote areas of the country.  Earlier this year, hundreds of LGBT people and their parents took part in the 10th Annual PFLAG China National Conference held on a ocean cruise between China and Japan, that featured the marriage of nine LGBT couples and many other colorful and meaningful events. Eleven brave PFLAG moms earlier this year also came to Shanghai’s famous “marriage market,” where every weekend parents of heterosexual children gather in a famous park with photos and resumes in hand to matchmake. The PFLAG moms decided to come to try to find mates of the same sex for their gay children.  Other parents started a contentious argument, causing security to come and force the PFLAG moms to leave.  But it was an amazing act of bravery and LGBT visibility through the power of parental love and acceptance.  We met another activist who had been held by the police because he was a leading a public event where people were simply offered the opportunity to express love and support for LGBT people.  The stress of all of this can take an emotional toll on participants.

During our visit, a short film we made screened as part of a queer film series, and we got to know members of China’s film and arts scene, many of whom have created and run LGBT-themed film and arts organizations that bring much sought after queer content to LGBT audiences.   Many seemed to be living life full tilt and leading very international lives, coming and going as they attend overseas film festivals and at times living abroad for arts fellowships or higher education.  One person – far from fearing not conforming to his parents’ expectations – emancipated himself from them overseas.  Another spoke of the need to explode marriage and most other societal institutions, perhaps not surprisingly given how oppressive they currently can be to LGBT people in China.  Another artist had the guts to sue the government when his LGBT public education film had been removed from the internet a couple years ago.  The entire film program in which our film was screened needed to be reviewed by the government before it could be shown.  And a number of artists and activists were actively seeking to leave China because of the oppression.

Above all, we treasure the human connections, mutual support and camaraderie we built with the people we met. Unlike other places we have given presentations, groups in China were particularly interested in hearing how we have kept our relationship together for three decades:  What was our biggest conflict?  How did we resolve differences?  Have we ever considered breaking up?  We ended up telling audiences things we had previously only shared with close friends.  And in discussion groups, participants gave each other the opportunity to be heard and to witness each other’s struggles and aspirations. In setting up one of our presentations and discussion groups, we worked closely with wonderful people who lead Chinese groups of radical faeries.  This type of sharing and support are the core of faerie heart circles.

The current nationalistic policies of the American and Chinese governments may tend to separate its citizens, but what we share as LGBT people connects us across oceans and national boundaries.  We feel part of one movement. Chinese activists told us that the marriage equality victory in America and the gains for LGBT rights here were helping change things in China.  And as we witnessed firsthand the dedication, energy, courage, creativity and intelligence of Chinese LGBT activists in the face of government repression, we left inspired by what they have achieved and convinced more than ever that we in the LGBT community in America must use our freedom to the utmost.  Their work is testament to the power of grassroots, person-to-person education and community building. In the end, we educated and inspired each other – which is exactly what the LGBT community can do when it’s at its best.

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality.

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