Earlier this month, while Weibo, China’s most prominent social media platform, was flooded with posts including the hashtag “5.17IDAHO,” which represents “May 17 International Day Against Homophobia,” two young women were beaten by five security guards because they entered the 798 Art Zone in Beijing wearing LGBT rainbow badges. The two women had planned to attend an LGBT free-hug event hosted in the 798 Art Zone. However, they were stopped by the security guards and asked to take off the rainbow badges.
The activities celebrating International Day Against Homophobia 2018 in China were unprecedentedly large. Many college students voluntarily stood on the streets distributing rainbow badges, wristbands, or flyers to the public, as a way to show their support to LGBT groups. This nationwide campaign for the equal rights of LGBT people also drew attention from the Chinese government. However, the authorities did not seem happy to see young people joining the social movement.
What happened to the two women in Beijing is not a one-off case. Many college students took to social media to share their experiences of being stopped and questioned by the school’s security department because of their rainbow badges.
Students at Wuhan University even received a warning message from their academic advisers, saying that “the LGBT event is held by an illegal organization that may collude with the Western powers” and the students should “watch their words and behaviors.”
“I believe some of the teachers must have been forced to say so,” Kun, a gay student at Wuhan University said. “It sounds ridiculous. I start to think maybe I should move to other countries, some places that are more friendly to us. I love my country, but I don’t know how should I react to this.”
Kun came out to his friends and family after entering college. He refused to give his full name because he was afraid to be recognized by people at the school.
While the legalization of LGBT rights is still off the discussion table in China, Chinese LGBT groups have started bringing high-profile legal cases on a wide range of issues, such as employment discrimination and marriage equality. The equal rights of LGBT Chinese have been one of the most urgent social problems needing to be solved. However, compared to the increasingly liberal public opinion, the Chinese government has shown a fickle attitude toward the topic.
Earlier in April, Weibo classified LGBT issues as a topic to be banned in its latest campaign of creating “a clean and harmonious” public environment on the media platform, a priority of the government. This decision soon irritated the public and also drew criticism from People’s Daily, the flagship Chinese Communist Party newspaper.
The newspaper published an editorial via its social media account saying that: “LGBT is a minority group of the society regarding sexual orientation, and it’s the obligation of a just society to protect the rights of minorities.”
Weibo eventually reversed the ban.
Many people interpreted the People’s Daily editorial as a signal that the government may soften its attitude toward LGBT rights. However, the campaign marking International Day Against Homophobia 2018 — an extension of the April movement against Weibo’s ban on LGBT-related content — was officially forbidden by many public facilities just one month later.
Marshall Chen, a gay consultant at a tech startup in Beijing, said he is not surprised to see the government changing its attitude.
“I don’t trust what they’re saying,” he said. “Things like this had happened many times before. It almost feels like they give you candy and tell you to shut up.”
Chen has come out to his parents, but his mother still wants him to marry to a woman, even though it would be just a sham marriage. He said the sense of LGBT community in China is just sprouting; as a gay man, he has a hard time to fit into any social group.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and officially removed it from the so-called white book of mental disorders, the Chinese Mental Disorder Classification and Diagnosis Standard (CCMD-3) published by China’s Ministry of Health in 2001. After that, the LGBT groups in China devoted tremendous efforts in changing public opinion toward LGBT people. According to a 2013 global survey on attitudes toward homosexuality by the Pew Research Center, 32 percent of Chinese younger than 30 think homosexuality should be acceptable, compared with only 15 percent of those 50 and older. However, the social movement of equal rights for LGBT, in general, remains highly restricted by the authorities.
Many Chinese nonprofit organizations advocating for LGBT rights often find themselves standing in an embarrassing position. They can never publicly promote themselves as an organization working with LGBT rights, lest they get into trouble. Instead, these nonprofits must identify as a social group advocating for public health, like HIV/AIDS.
Sam Sun, a project manager of Beijing Gender, an organization advocating for gender and sexual diversity and health in China, said their organization is struggling to fundraise without drawing unwanted attention from the security department.
“We do not see the government wants to support or cooperate with LGBT NGOs on advocacy. After the Spring Festival long holiday, I heard several NGOs had to move to a new place to work on as the local police pushed,” Sun said. “This is the reality.”
While the general public still feels perplexed about government’s paradoxical behavior in the past two months, some experts said that the official pullback on International Day Against Homophobia 2018 was logical. Even though the LGBT community won a small symbolic victory in April, it also set itself up for more significant problems in the immediate future — all of a sudden, the community getting new attention from security apparatuses.
Siodhbhra Parkin, a fellow at the Global Network for Public Interest Law (PILnet) in New York, said the public shouldn’t overinterpret the editorial from People’s Daily. It might be a signal showing that the government does not have a problem with LGBT rights as a concept. However, that doesn’t mean that the authorities will tolerate civil mobilization and activism.
“I don’t think you’re going to see the Chinese government supporting civil society groups at the same time that they are trying to crack down [on] all these other groups. When you’re an LGBT NGO, you’re still an NGO,” she said. “And that is always going to be kind of the determining factor for whether or not the LGBT movement moves forward.”
Parkin also suggested that the Chinese government doubtless is willing to work with the LGBT advocates to solve social problems. However, it also has its own agendas. Only when the goals of LGBT community match with the government’s will the LGBT movement in China have a chance to grow.
Weibo’s announcement in April echoed what President Xi Jinping has called “clean cyberspace,” as the government tries to take control of the fast-growing social media networks in China. As a result, much online content, including the “MeToo” movement and hip-hop music, has been banned as internet censorship tghtens. The campaign against the ban on LGBT-related content put LGBT groups under the spotlight and made them become the next target.
Yuan Cai, a freelance photographer in Shanghai, is gay. He became famous within the LGBT online community because of his strong advocacy for LGBT rights on Weibo. But then Cai’s Weibo account was banned from posting right before the International Day Against Homophobia. This is at least the second time that he has been muted on Weibo. Cai said he has concerns for his safety because he has seen some of his LGBT friends being targeted by the police after posts questioning the government.
“The only two real victories of LGBT movement in China are decriminalizing homosexuality and separating it from mental disorders. And both of them were accomplished under pressure from the international world. Now China is much stronger and has decided to deal with LGBT issue in its way. No one knows what is going to happen,” Cai said. “It may be good, [or it] may be worse. The chance always goes with risk. We should take advantage of it and speak out for ourselves.”
It is apparent that the Chinese government is trying to keep the LGBT issue in a grey area. While it doesn’t want to be seen as being against LGBT people, it also refuses to stand on the same side with them either. Without support from the government, how far the LGBT movement can go in China will be a big question mark. Because even if the young generation is more open to LGBT issues, the strong traditional culture of gender and family inheritance is still an obstacle they need to overcome.
Zhihan Ren, a famous lesbian blogger on Weibo, said she has received many comments on her blog cursing and insulting her. One commenter went as far as to say that she would become straight if she was raped.
Ren said that public opinion toward LGBT people is becoming more friendly. However, there is still much resistance, and the authority‘s conservative attitude leaves the LGBT community even more helpless.
“What they did is just like a denial of our existence in the society. Then how can we try to persuade our parents, persuade others?” she said.
Ren came out to her family two years ago. However, her parents haven’t accepted it yet.
Si Chen is a visual journalist studying documentary at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.