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LGBT in China

Fourth installment of the PN blog series about grassroots activism in China.

The month of June is now commonly associated with the Gay Pride movements in many countries worldwide. The first official Lesbian, Gays, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) demonstration took place in New York in 1969, standing up against homophobia and marginalisation; since then LGBT and Gay Pride movements have spread massively with June being the month when most activities and parades take place.

The USA was also the first country to official recognise June as the "Gay & Lesbian Pride Month", as described by Bill Clinton in the 2000. Following the American example many other countries have since officially recognised June as ‘Pride Month’. As such, in this period LGBT groups worldwide organise activities and parades at a regional, national and continental level. Whereas in some cases these might be solemn, in many others Gay Pride parades are characterised by burlesques dresses, music and a generally colourful environment.

LGBT movements are spreading up in China as well, and in June Shanghai celebrated its 5th Gay Pride week. Nevertheless, the relationship between civil society and homosexuality is still one characterised by a certain degree of taboo and social stigma.

Traditionally in China homosexuality wasn’t regarded as a problem and homosexual behaviours have been recorded among high exponents of the local aristocracies for centuries. Nevertheless, after China lost the opium war in 1840 the country fell under the formal influence of Great Britain and a Western way of thought was imposed; it is thus through this formal British domination that homosexuality started to be regarded as a form of mental disorder, as it was seen in Europe at the end of the 19th century. Consequently, as was happening in the West, for decades Chinese LGBTs were ‘treated’ and kept in psychiatric centres.

In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was officially founded with Mao Zedong becoming the chairman of the new country and for the following three decades any kind of Western influence has been kept out of China. Consequently, the advances obtained by LGBTs in other countries in terms of human rights and social recognition didn’t enter the country, instead they were viewed in a derogatory way and instrumentally used by the Communist Party as a way to depict in negative term the ‘decline and evil’ of Western societies. During the first years of the new State homosexuality had become grounds for persecution, with punishments ranging from forced labour to years of imprisonment.

Nevertheless, homosexuality per se had never been classified as a crime but was instead regarded as ‘hooliganism’, a term that included a vast range of ‘deviant behaviours’ such as extra and pre-marital sexual relations. As ‘hooliganisms’, homosexuality was thus considered illegal up until 1997 when eventually it was dropped from the penal code.

In the phase starting from 1978, when eventually the country opened up its doors to the outside world once again, the relationship between the State and homosexuality has gone through different stages, going from periods of formal acceptance and of public action, to others of closure and denial. Most specifically, the spread of HIV within the country in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s forced the State to face the question of a change in the perception of sexuality in general and of homosexuality in particular. Although some steps have periodically been taken towards an acceptance of LGBTs, throughout all the ‘90s homosexuality was still basically unknown as anything other than a taboo or grounds for social stigma.

It is only in more recent years that the Chinese State has engaged in some kind of dialogue and openness towards homosexuality and LGBTs communities. Still, the official position is often changing and on many occasions authorities have suddenly withdrawn their approval regarding activities organised by LGBT communities: this was the case in early 2000 when exponents of LGBT had been invited on TV shows for the first time and information regarding homosexuality was published on mainstream media channels, however, in the span of a few months authorities suddenly changed their position and two major festivals organised by LGBT communities (the lesbian culture festival and the LGBT movie festival) were promptly stopped just before they began. This kind of thing also happened at the end of the decade, when in 2010 a Gay Pride parade that was going to take place in Beijing was suddenly cancelled the day before it was scheduled to begin due to a withdrawal of permission by the local authorities.

At a similar time, in 2009 the first ever Chinese Gay Pride week took place in Shanghai, where hundreds of LGBTs joined the activities organised by a committee of volunteers. On this occasion, although most events took place as scheduled, local authorities still interfered, cancelling or interrupting some of the main events. Nevertheless, Shanghai Gay Pride week has now become a tradition, and this year it has celebrated its 5th anniversary: more than 3000 guests took part in the activities during the week and with no interference by the authorities.

LGBTs communities are taking action all over the country, trying to change the perception that society has about homosexuality. The internet is playing an important role in this process as most LGBTs communities have their own websites where they publish information and news about the gay life of the country, while online forums have also become a platform of dialogue and blogs are proliferating. Homosexuality is slowly losing the social stigma that has characterised it for decades in China. Nevertheless, this is mainly true only in the biggest cities along the coast, such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. In smaller cities and in the Western provinces of the country homosexuality is still a taboo, and LGBTs often face discrimination.

Much work still has to be done. As stated on the Shanghai Pride website, “In a country where only a tiny slice of the estimated 50 million LGBT people are out to themselves and others, a lot of progress still needs to be made in Chinese society to help people feel comfortable with the way they were born”.

China’s claim to openness to diversity needs to meet the requirements of its society, in this case represented by LGBTs. A moment like this, when many countries have recently approved same-sex marriage and homosexuality has become an often recurring issue in international media, can be the good time for Chinese LGBTs to gain recognition from the State.

LS is a graduate student in development studies at SOAS, London; before moving to London she lived in China for two years, between 2010 and 2012, studying, travelling and working. This post is the fourth installment in a series on Chinese grassroots struggles to be published on the Peace News blog.

The first part of this series, 'Ignoring grassroots struggles in China', is available here.

The second part of this series, 'China's dream', is available here.

The third part of this series, ‘Oppression in Xinijang province,’ is available here.


Shanghai pride website

Website providing information regarding gay life in China (Mandarin)