A queer state

This midsummer’s weekend, hundreds of Beijingers enjoyed ales and pies at the second annual craft-beer festival. The Beijing LGBT Centre, a non-profit organisation (for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people), had a stall there too, where they handed out T-shirts and answered questions (pictured to the right). This in itself was a small victory—the venue management had informed the festival’s organisers earlier that the LGBT stall would not be allowed to use the space, as they “don’t fit in with our architecture”. No other explanation was given.

The management later backtracked and apologised, which was perhaps the only surprise. China’s queer community is used to not having an easy ride. “We encounter this type of discrimination quite often,” said the LGBT Centre’s Stephen Leonelli. Event cancellations are not uncommon. In May, their anniversary cocktail gala, billed as “a masquerade to end homophobia and transphobia”, was called off abruptly.

Beijing’s sixth Queer Film Festival, which this year ran from June 19th to 23rd, asked for a press embargo to keep quiet all reports (such as this one), until after the festival’s closing ceremony. They advertised chiefly by e-mail, fearful that if news got out the authorities might intervene and force a last-minute change of venue, as they had done in the past. This year’s festival screened 28 films from nine countries. Roughly 300 people are estimated to have attended.

Elsewhere in China, events in cities including Shenyang in the far north and Guangzhou in the south marked Gay Pride month. Shanghai Pride, an annual LGBT festival now in its fifth year, went off without a hitch. Changsha Pride, a parade in the capital of Hunan province which was attended by about 100 people, wasn’t so lucky. Its 19-year-old organiser, Xiang Xiaohan, was detained by police for 12 days, for staging a parade without the necessary permits.

Homosexuality has been legal in mainland China since 1997. It was removed from an official list of mental illnesses only in 2001. Prejudice is still widespread and there is as yet no civil-rights law to protect gays against various sorts of discrimination. Many parents have difficulty accepting that their only child is gay. One result is a thing called the “co-operative marriage”. In these arrangements, the two partners to a gay male couple marry the two partners to a lesbian couple. One such group marriage can mollify as many as eight parents, while in practice each of the loving couples are able to keep living together.

For the most part, public attitudes are changing for the better. To most urban youth, homosexuality is just another part of society. There are decriminalised gay bars and club nights in cities across China. The closing ceremony of the Queer Film Festival was attended by a handful of “gay mamas”, there to support their children. In addition to such celebratory events and festivals, there is a growing number of LGBT community and advocacy groups.

In one high-rise building in eastern Beijing, six such organisations have come together. The LGBT Centre organises events and offers psychological training and support. Aibai is a media and advocacy enterprise. Tongyu promotes lesbian and trans-sexual issues. The Beijing Gender Health Education Institute organises the “Rainbow Awards” for Chinese media and a training course called “QueerUniversity”. There is also a separate health organisation, and a monthly magazine called Gay Spot.

Such efforts remain semi-underground, however. “LGBT is still very sensitive, you have to be careful in China,” said Wei Xiaogang, the director of Queer Comrades, a non-profit LGBT webcast (the Chinese word for “comrade” is urban slang for gay, which might be awkward for some cadres). Ultimately the greatest difficulty they face has less to do with bigotry than with the fact that they are trying to form organisations that might draw large numbers of people together on the basis of shared interests: always a problem in China. As Yang Yang, organiser of the Queer Film Festival put it, “everything is political”.

by A.A. | Beijing
Source – The Economist