Taiwan’s legislature recently struck down the definition of marriage as being solely between a man and a woman—a landmark victory for LGBTQ rights in Asia that paves the way for Taiwan to become the first nation on the continent to legalize same-sex marriage.
But while the LGBTQ community is gaining ground on the island, in mainland China, queer activists say their civil rights are under increasing threat—even as Chinese society has become more accepting of gay and lesbian life.
In the last five years, Xi Jingping’s government has cracked down on activists of all kinds, including the LGBTQ community. The government’s fear of Western influence has helped create the country’s worst human rights record since its violent 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. And that has had serious implications for the nascent LGBTQ equal rights movement. Non-government sanctioned gatherings are often prohibited, and those who express their views are harassed or detained. Last year, the government issued new guidelines banning most depictions of queer relationships on TV, describing them as “vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content.”
“Generally speaking the Chinese [government] doesn’t have phobias against same-sex behavior. But it’s the manifestation, the organization, the attempt to publish, to influence—they don’t want that,” says Jerome Cohen, a New York University professor and leading expert on Chinese law and government.
Fusion spent a year following members of the LGBTQ community in China for The Naked Truth: China Queer, documenting their challenges as they fight for recognition and freedom under an authoritarian government. Only about 5% of LGBTQ Chinese are “out” in their communities, according to a 2016 United Nations Development Programme report.
One of the activists Fusion profiled is Fan Popo, a documentary filmmaker whose best-known film, “Mama Rainbow”, shows young men and women coming out to their parents to surprisingly positive results. Fan’s documentary was viewed over a million times online, but that brought unwanted attention, and in 2014 the film disappeared from the web. In a bold move, Fan sued the government agency that regulates media, demanding to know why it was taken down.
“I think one of the biggest challenges for the LGBTQ community in China is visibility, because most of the LGBTQ people didn’t come out to their friends and families,” said Fan during an interview in Beijing.
Another activist interviewed for the documentary is Wei Ting Ting, a women’s rights advocate who was detained along with four other activists in 2015 for organizing a small demonstration. During her 37-day detention, interrogators asked Wei repeatedly about her relationship with Western groups and the United States.
The U.S. State Department and other Western governments have provided financial support to LGBTQ groups in China as part of an advocacy campaign launched in 2011 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in support of LGBTQ rights around the world.
The support reflects a history of the U.S. government funding civic groups, to further democratic and free market ideals. And dozens of Chinese LGBTQ activists have traveled to the U.S. to train with groups like the LGBT Center in Los Angeles, where they learned to run their organizations back home. One of those activists is Ah Qiang. He leads PFLAG China, one of the largest gay organizations in China (inspired by, but not affiliated with, the U.S. nonprofit).
Displeased with this type of cooperation, the Chinese government enacted a law in 2016 that imposes restrictions on international aid for local nongovernment organizations.
Since then Ah Qiang’s events, as well as those of other groups, are closely monitored.
“They say it’s ‘not convenient to have this conference here, and I recommend you go some other place’. And you ask why not? And they say, ‘I don’t know, try some other cities,’” said Ah Qiang.
Despite crackdowns, there have been some legal victories.
Take Yanzi Peng, in 2014 he exposed the dubious practice of conversion therapy. After seeking this treatment for himself and finding it to be a sham, he sued the clinic for false advertisement, as well as Baidu, China’s main search engine for publishing the clinic’s ads. It was the first case any Chinese court had heard on conversion treatment. The court agreed the treatment was fake and ordered the clinic to refund his money. Yet, there are still no laws against conversion therapy in China, and it continues to be practiced.
“We want the public, in particular those parents with gay kids, to understand that homosexuality is not a disease,” said Yanzi during an interview in Guangzhou. “You do not need to take them for treatment.”
For every activist fighting openly for gay rights in China, there are thousands who keep their LGBTQ identity secret.
As gay marriage is not legal in China, Ou Xiaobai has gone to great lengths to make her family happy and avoid coming out as a lesbian. In 2012, she married another man in a wedding with 200 guests. Her girlfriend of five years, Yi Zhu, served as her bridesmaid. Ou’s arrangement is known as xinghun (SHING-Hwen), a legal marriage of convenience between a gay man and a lesbian woman.
Unbowed, Yi and Ou are putting an entrepreneurial spin on the challenges life has thrown at them. They created an app called ihomo – a matchmaking service for lesbians and gay men—not looking for love—just a fake wedding to keep up appearances.
In her search for acceptance, Yi considered using the ihomo app for her own xinghun to appease her parents. But when she finally told them about a potential husband, their reaction surprised her. They opposed it.
“Your only obligation is to be healthy. Don’t get sick. Don’t worry us, and that will make us happy,” Yi’s mother told her—even as she seemed to struggle to get those words out.
“I have no right to ask you to live by their ‘normal standards,’” Yi’s mother added, giving her daughter cautious hope for both her own future and that of her country.
PFLAG director Ah Qiang believes the government will have to catch up to its people. “The younger generation has come a long way on gender equality, sexual minorities, and rights,” he said.
“Eventually, this will reach the legislators.”
Co-author Kristofer Rios is the producer of Fusion TV’sThe Naked Truth: China Queer. The feature-length documentary explores the difficulties of being LGBTQ in China and the battle activists are waging to get both the government and society to accept them and recognize their equal rights.