Asia Life

How ‘Three Billboards’ Inspired China’s Gay Rights Activists

Trucks painted with slogans – mobile billboards – are the center of a campaign against homosexual conversion therapy.

By Kyle Mullin for
How ‘Three Billboards’ Inspired China’s Gay Rights Activists

The three trucks with their slogans against conversation therapy, from an image posted to Wu Qiong’s Weibo account.

Credit: Weibo/ 武老白

When Wu Qiong rang up one of the roughly 100 Chinese hospitals that offer homosexual conversion therapy, the Shenzhen-based artist thought he knew what to expect. After all, a friend at an LGBT non-profit told the socially conscious artist all about such discriminatory, heteronormative therapy.* But when Wu, who is straight, called one of those centers, lying about his sexuality and asking for their assistance, he was still surprised by what the receptionist had to say.

“When I called the center and pretended to be gay, the receptionist quickly told me they could ‘fix’ it,” Wu tells The Diplomat. “I was shocked by how direct they were.”

That phone call was meant to glean information for Wu, his friend Lin He (who is gay and works as a policeman; he met Wu after buying one of the artist’s books), and art curator Zheng Hongbin’s far grander project against conversion therapy. In mid-January they began driving across the country to visit such centers in eight major cities like Jinan and Shanghai, with Beijing and Tianjin being next on the itinerary. They are chronicling the trip on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter; the AFP reports that the hashtag for their campaign garnered more than 6 million views merely a week after it began. Many of those followers have chipped in to pay for the trip’s gas money through a crowd fund.

Their mode of transport? Trucks emblazoned with slogans about how conversion therapy is designed to cure a “non-existent disease”; “‘Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders’ still includes ‘sexual orientation disorder’”; and how that vague official reference to sexual orientation was not removed, as more direct terms like homosexuality and bisexuality were, from the Mental Disorders list in 2001 (the last truck’s sign specifically says “It’s been 19 years, why?”).

The signs on those trucks (which they apply and remove from new vehicles in each city, because of regulations against intercity trucking) are an homage to last year’s Oscar winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Wu, Lin, and Zheng have taken their message on the road because buying a billboard for such a protest, ala Frances McDormand’s character in the film, is impossible under China’s restrictive laws.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

That point is echoed by Liang Xiaowen, who operates the @FeministChina Twitter account and who tweeted praise about Wu, Lin, and Zheng’s efforts early on in their campaign.

During an interview, Liang cites a queer feminist activist in Guangzhou as China’s real-life answer to Frances McDormand: “In 2017 she tried to buy a subway billboard to speak out against sexual harassment, but was refused constantly.” Liang sees that activist’s struggles, along with recent crackdowns on online videos with LGBT content, as parts of a disheartening trend. However, she says Wu, Lin, and Zheng’s campaign “brings us hope. Using slogans on vehicles to send messages is a brilliant idea that the government does not yet have authority on, and cannot censor.”

And that’s not the only aspect of the campaign garnering praise. Popo Fan – the well-regarded director of the documentary Mama Rainbow, which details how six Chinese mothers overcame prejudice after their children came out – likes how the campaign uses of the hit Three Billboards movie as a hook. He says, “I think it’s very inspiring that McDormand’s character would advocate for a cause with billboards, and I think it’s creative for these men to do it with trucks.”

Having not only the message, but also the method of the campaign praised is quite meaningful to Wu. As he puts it: “I am an artist, and this is an opportunity for me to create something that will help improve society.”

That artistic spirit is hugely beneficial to activism, says Fan, who explains: “In China, because it’s so hard to break taboos, activists like him always need to be creative. So I think this is a very smart idea.”

Fan adds that one of the main hurdles in breaking such taboos is, of course, the type of censorship that Liang described on China’s video platforms, subway billboards, and beyond. “The censorship isn’t according to rules, but according to people,” Fan says of the inconsistency that can make activists feel bold one moment, only to suffer grave consequences the next. “Sometimes officials get lazy and don’t want to deal with certain things. Then sometimes, different departments get new people, and it can make a big difference. So I hope that Wu, Lin, and Zheng won’t be bothered by the authorities, and will have a safe trip.”

Yanzi Peng, director of the LGBT Rights Advocacy China nonprofit, also hopes that the authorities don’t crack down on Wu and his cohorts, not only for the sake of their campaign, but also for those who stand to learn from it. “Lack of information can shape the attitude of parents who force their children into conversion therapy,” he says. Peng adds that a lack of regulations against conversion therapy allows such centers to exploit those families “just for the money” despite copious evidence of the ineffectiveness, not to mention the immorality, of such practices. Censorship of such matters all but ensures there will be no public ire, and therefore no pressure on the government to ban the centers.

While he’s not sure how the campaign has thus far skirted censorship or crackdowns, Wu says he and his cohorts are glad to travel the country in the slogan-coated trucks unencumbered. Aside from provoking discussions among Chinese netizens by chronicling their trip on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, Wu is all the more eager to engage passersby who see the signs on their trucks.

One of the most memorable such discussions took place while Wu and the others were at a rest stop in Shanghai, and a security guard approached them. Though some guards might have reprimanded them for parking such provocatively decorated trucks on their beat, Wu recalls how this man instead “asked us what the signs on our trucks meant. After explaining it to him, he agreed with us that homosexuality is simply a love of the same sex, and does not require treatment.”

More encouraging still: Wu says the guard wanted to “help us promote these ideas” so that the campaign’s message of tolerance and love could continue to spread even after their journey is complete.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

*An earlier version of this article misidentified Lin He as the friend who had undergone conversion therapy.

Kyle Mullin is a Beijing-based reporter.