Participants take part in the gay run, part of Shanghai's gay pride festival in 2017. (Photo: VCG)
Every year on May 17, which is International Day against Homophobia, Cindy (pseudonym) and her peers at a Guangzhou-based LGBT group hold some sort of activity in the city, usually on university campuses. In the past, they tried to raise a rainbow flag on campuses, throw music concerts or hold "pride parades."
But this year, the group decided to cancel all of its public events and instead moved its activity strictly online. They launched a campaign on social media calling for the local LGBT community to show their identity with photos, with people holding up signs that identify themselves or support the community.
Cindy told the Global Times that, in recent years, she has felt a shrinking space for holding such offline activities.
However, Ah Qiang, founder of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays China (PFLAG), noted to the Global Times that despite outside pressure, he sees more LGBT activities being held in recent years compared with a decade ago.
He attributes this to the growing acceptance toward LGBT people within Chinese society, and also the participation of younger generations of gays in the movement who are much more willing to come out and express themselves.
He suggests that in order for their cause to take root in China, LGBT groups should adapt to the unique Chinese environment and succumb to localization.
Localization is important
This year, while many organizations chose to remain low-key for the upcoming International Day Against Homophobia, students from the Affiliated School of Peking University are organizing events to celebrate the day.
"The younger generation, especially those born in the post-2000s, live in an environment where being homosexual isn't abnormal, so they don't have a strong psychological burden [to organize events to the public]," Ah Qiang said.
It was not until 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the China's list of psychological diseases.
Despite the pressure felt by many LGBT organizations this year, Ah Qiang said that "this isn't totally a bad thing," and urged that, under this environment, "many should reflect on themselves how to promote the LGBT movement in the unique Chinese environment."
"Direct copying of the Western mode isn't suited to China. In the West, they can have protests and direct confrontations (with authorities), but in China most people prefer harmony. If you choose radical Western ways, this will definitely draw mistrust and misunderstanding from the Chinese government and also bring trouble," he said, emphasizing the necessity of LGBT movement's localization.
Years ago, Ah Qiang decided to switch their major fund-raising channel from overseas organizations to individual donations from China. "It's worth my effort, as it enables me to have absolute autonomy in agenda setting," he said, adding that he now refuses donations from organizations that disagree with his personal values.
"For many LGBT organizations at their early age, it's understandable that they need to depend on foreign money to survive. But they need to keep in mind that they shouldn't just use the Western agenda," he said.
Ah Qiang added that it is understandable that the Chinese government worries that these LGBT groups could be exploited by outside forces. "But the government also needs to change their mindset. They should see LGBT events as representative of China becoming more inclusive," he said.
Advocating positive values
PFLAG's activities this year have yet to encounter any obstacles, according to Ah Qiang. He said he has "good communications with the government" in these events and has even "invited them to participate."
Dedicated to helping parents and gay children to build an inclusive, robust and harmonious family relationship, PFLAG now highlights this mission in its publicizing in accordance with socialist core values which advocate a harmonious family and relationships.
"Before, I didn't highlight this [the mission] in a striking position, but now I do. We need to do things in our own culture and consider the government's opinions. We should solve problems rather than creating trouble, and people should learn to manage their personal emotions in pushing forward Chinese LGBT movement," he said.
Geng Le, founder of popular gay app Blued, told the Global Times that they are also working closely with the government in improving local LGBT people's rights.
Blued currently works with certain government organization to conduct research on the living situations of LGBT people in China, which will be used as a reference for policymakers. It is also cooperating with the local government in AIDS prevention and elimination of AIDS discrimination.
"From the policymakers' perspective and my own experiences working with the government, they want a stable and harmonious society. Therefore, active and effective communication with the government is a good way to usher in fundamental changes to the whole environment," he said.
Geng noted that recent conflicts may have been caused by "bugs and deviation" in regulation implementation. "We hope to solve these problems from a top-level design, so that law enforcement departments can find laws to abide by in the future," he said.
According to Geng, the government should also consider "including LGBT people in the united front work" so that it can better understand the appeals of tens of millions of LGBT people in China.
Due to a slew of recent incidents, this year's International Day Against Homophobia celebrations in China have encountered some backlash, according to gay activists.
Last Sunday, public discussions and controversy were aroused when security staff at Beijing's 798 Art Zone roughed up two female visitors simply for wearing rainbow badges on their clothes. The incident caused an uproar online.
Many said that the incident, which happened before May 17, shows tightening restrictions against the LGBT movement. But even before last week there were signs that the government wants such activities to stay low-key.
Last month, China's Twitter-like microblog Weibo posted a notice on its official account banning all art and fiction that included LGBT content. The policy was reversed after just one day, due to negative media attention and massive pressure from concerned Chinese netizens.
Such policies hinder local LGBT groups, Xiaotie, the director of Beijing LGBT Center, claims. "Last June, China Netcasting Services Association released a notice that bans gay content from being uploaded to video and live-streaming sites. This brings a lot of trouble to our daily work," she said.
The center uses Bilibili and other Chinese sites to spread their own publicity, uploading videos that explain LGBT-related issues as well as movies or other short clips that contain gay content.
Living in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, Cindy has noticed a societal shift in recent years.
The organization Cindy is part of registered in 2006 at a university in Guangzhou, becoming the first school club that focused specifically on LGBT topics. Since then, they have been trying to hold activities and raise their rainbow flag on May 17 every year.
In the past, the group held a few successful activities. For example, in 2013 they organized a musical concert as the opening of Guangzhou Pride Week. Almost every local LGBT group attended.
However, in recent years the group started feeling more outside pressure, Cindy said. In 2014, their permit application for holding a block party was not granted by the neighborhood committee.
Therefore, in 2015, the group decided to stop publicizing its events and only recruit volunteers via social media.
In 2016, the group was officially banned from using any classrooms in the university to hold their events.
Last year, students from various Guangzhou universities coordinated to raise the rainbow flag on campuses across the city. But at 5 pm, three volunteers were suddenly detained by the police and taken to local police bureau for questioning. On the second day, more gay volunteers were "invited" into school offices "to talk," according to Cindy.
"Protecting our members' safety is a priority, so if we meet obstacles we will cancel activities or try another way," Cindy said. "We don't really have any experience in working with officials; you can say we are still 'mysterious,' but we are exploring that area."
Out of safety concerns, the group had to cancel most of its May 17 activities this year. Cindy concluded that, in order for student LGBT groups to survive, one must be on friendly terms with school administrators or other official sources, otherwise their group will remain a "mysterious organization" that stays invisible.