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    LGBT Life in China: Obstacles and Inspiration (Part 1 of 2)

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis

    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. People, however, came. 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 many Chinese do not know or talk about. An extraordinary group of LGBT activists is changing 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. China, though, is currently undergoing a period of extensive repression in which those in 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 from1966–1976 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. They also tend to have limited means of getting information, and face strong cultural and familial pressures to marry a person of the opposite sex and to 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. 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 lack 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. 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.

    There will be more about LGBT life in China in the next issue of the San Francisco Bay Times.

    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. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.