Hoping on gay rights in China

The celebration in front of the United States Supreme Court upon the announcement of the Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right under the 14th Amendment.

Hoping is a lawyer and the founder of LesGo, a nonprofit organization on LGBTQI rights and gender equality in China. LesGo advocates for recognition of and equality for the LGBTQI community in Suzhou and surrounding areas. Hoping focuses on community organizing and rights advocacy both at local and national levels. As an International Public Interest Law Program Fellow based in New York currently, Hoping is developing a project around advocating for LGBTQI rights in China and enhancing community based organizations' capacity to provide services to marginalized LGBTQI people. This interview with Hoping was conducted on Feb. 22, 2016, by Alexandra Cheng '18.

Could you briefly tell us how popular attitudes and government policy toward homosexuality have changed in China?

Generally speaking, the term LGBT was only used to define the movement from around the beginning of this century. Before then, there was talk of homosexuality, but not the LGBT community as a whole. The first official change occurred in 1997 when China adopted the new Criminal Law that officially eliminated the crime named “hooliganism”—the crime under which homosexual acts could be prosecuted. Then in 2001, homosexuality was partially removed from "Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders."

Around that time, the government also initiated a fight against HIV/AIDS and so, by 2002, the general public associated homosexuality with HIV/AIDS and gay men. At the opening of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995, some gays and lesbians has begun to get connected with each other and organized parties. It was the significant prelude of the movement. At that time, there was sparse public discussion of transgender people or lesbians. There was MSM and homosexuality. So if defined as “LGBT” movement, it is a very new movement in China, having developed very quickly. I remember that in 2005, when I was a student at the university, people did not talk about LGBT issues or homosexuality. Basically, homosexuality was seriously stigmatized at that time. Now it’s a hot topic in China and people in the urban areas are at least aware of the LGBT community.

The civil society organizations, the LGBT organizations all played a significant role in this cause. These organizations were founded or established by people from this community; we work on community building and public advocacy to improve public awareness of LGBT (now LGBTIQA+) people and issues in many different ways. We hold lectures and salons to talk about these issues and take action on the streets by distributing information booklets and pamphlets. We also hold rainbow cycling races or rainbow marathons to increase public awareness and participation.

We have also used the media. Traditional media has changed a lot and social media has, in recent years, taken on an increasingly significant role in this cause. Everyone can post his or her opinions about LGBTIQ issues through social media, and spread it and share it quickly and effectively.

In the previous two or three years, you may have noticed that there were a few interesting cases, such as the same-sex marriage registration case, the textbook case, the queer movie director having filed a suit against the government agency, and other anti-discrimination cases related to LGBT and gender. These developments are all very interesting.

What rights does the LGBTI community have in modern-day China? What kind of discrimination does this community face?

Even now we have no legal framework to protect LGBTI people. The government has an unofficial attitude toward LGBT people that we call the “three no’s”: no support, no opposition, no advocacy. It appears neutral, but in fact, the effect is very negative. For a very long time, the government has ignored this community and not talked about these issues.

One landmark moment would be during the 56th session of the United Nations Committee against Torture, which took place from November 9 to December 9, 2015. Jian Yang, the deputy director of the Bureau of Prison Administration under the Ministry of Justice expressed that China does not think LGBTI is a disease, saying, “China does not view LGBTI as a mental disease or require compulsory treatment for LGBTI people. They will not be confined in mental hospitals either. Indeed, LGBTI people face some real challenges in terms of social acceptance, employment, education, health, and family life. This deserves our attention…” 1

This is a very positive, new development in China’s public attitude toward LGBTI issues. However, with regards to a legal framework to protect out community, we still haven’t made any breakthroughs in law or policy.

When we talk about discrimination, we have to consider the context. In China, it is rare for the LGBTI community to be faced with violent hate crimes from strangers or out of religious reason but discrimination has permeated many levels of society. It is spread through families and parents, and through the workplace and schools. Discrimination against the LGBTI community is very pervasive in China.

There was a survey showing that a lot of violence against the LGBTI people comes from parents. In China, traditional family pressure is very strong and this kind of violence can be mental or physical. While discrimination does not take the form of criminalization like it has in some African countries, it is still very strong and stressful for LGBT people in China.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about homosexuality in China?

First, the LGBTI community was stigmatized with HIV/AIDS for a long time. When the general public talks about homosexual people they just think about HIV/AIDS—even for lesbians! It’s very ridiculous. But this misconception has historical roots, because at the beginning of this century when the government initiated a fight against HIV/AIDS, they emphasized that homosexual people have the highest risk of contracting this disease. I remember that during AIDS day last year, we talked about how the state media still associate homosexual people with these diseases. For the LGBT movement, we try really hard to de-stigmatize this and to deliver the correct message and knowledge about LGBT people in order to change public opinion. It has been difficult, but has changed a lot. When I say de-stigmatization, I don’t mean prevention of HIV/AIDS is not important. On the contrary, it is really important! I just mean we need people to know about LGBTIQ people as an equal citizen through enough channels, not just through the government’s propaganda of HIV/AIDS. Subsequently, many people still think homosexuality is abnormal and immoral. The censorship against homosexual plots in movies and TV shows never stops. Basically, due to lack of mainstream channels learning about LGBTIQ people, the public people still have a lot of misconceptions.

Another issue is that sometimes the government has taken the stance that LGBT is just a concept from the Western world; that discrimination against LGBT people or legal struggles encountered by the LGBT people only exist in the West. But it's not true. Through the efforts of the whole LGBT community and organizations, the government cannot give this excuse anymore.

What makes the first same-sex marriage lawsuit against the civil affairs bureau unique? Has anything unpleasant happened to the plaintiffs? What are its implications regardless of its success or failure?

This case has historical meaning even though we know that under the existing legal framework in China it would be impossible to push the government to adopt same-sex marriage with just one case. While it is impossible to change the law now, this case is significant and, I think, meaningful because it touches the traditional family structure in China and a landmark of the LGBT movement. I admire the couple who bravely filed this case. It’s very inspiring and I think that this case is a natural result—an inevitable stage in the LGBT movement’s development. The LGBT movement in China has developed for 15 years and we have expanded the community base and enhanced the support for this case. People have changed a lot both within the community and the public at large.

One of the most important implications for the future of this movement is that activists and people from the community are now thinking about how to use the legal framework to protect our rights. Although we have a different understanding about the rule of law from the Chinese government, I think it’s good for LGBT people to think about how to use legal tools to protect our rights. Traditional law in China would not have anticipated the LGBT community to file a case and fight for its rights through litigations. Just last year, China’s judicial system adopted a case registration system, meaning that as long as someone meets certain requirements, the court has to accept and register his or her case.

Another implication is that although we have said that it would be impossible to obtain a substantial result, this case has triggered a lot of discussion on LGBT issues in China. It has attracted attention from the public. You may have noticed that apart from the New York Times, many media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, and social media in China are talking about this issue. You also have some judges and scholars who have written articles attacking this case and making ridiculous claims like LGBT issues are not suitable for Chinese society. But at least people are now talking about these issues. Such discussion is positive for the movement because previously the biggest problem was that people in the government just ignored these issues. Now that we’ve gotten the conversation started, we have the target to do further advocacy work.

The significant implication is that people are beginning to think about how to push forward this movement more strategically.

Would you say the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US has inspired or given hope to LGBTI communities in the rest of the world, and in China specifically, to legalize same-sex marriage in their own countries?

Absolutely. I think it’s very meaningful. I remember in 2014 when Britain adopted same-sex marriage, it didn't’ attract so much attention from people in China. But last June, when the US legalized same-sex marriage, the news spread very quickly and was talked intensively in China. It is definitely admired by people in China and by people in other countries.

Is there a generational difference in attitudes toward the LGBTI community? Is the younger generation showing more support for LGBTI rights?

We need to treat this issue in a more intersectional way. Of course, the younger generation has more channels through which to obtain information about LGBT issues. When I was in high school and university, we lacked the channels to learn about LGBT issues. But now, when I talk about these issues with my niece or nephew, who are now in junior school, they at least hear about LGBT and they know that some of their friends identify with LGBT. They are more inclusive.

At the same time we need to understand that it’s quite complicated. China has a public education system that lacks comprehensive sex or gender education, not to mention LGBT issues. These topics are not covered in school and so LGBT students still feel very stressed out. They lack the formal, academic channels to learn about themselves. It is very difficult for students to get information in school so they get the information about LGBT through indirect channels such as novels. They cannot talk about this publicly and can only make guesses as to whether someone identifies with LGBT or not.

There is also a very big gap between the cities and the rural areas in China. In the large rural areas, LGBTI people lack the channels to LGBTI knowledge or information—and it’s a very big problem. While the movement is very vibrant and inspiring now in China, this is only in the cities, especially in the very big cities. There is still a very harsh environment for LGBT people in the smaller cities and towns, the rural areas and the countryside. Some of them have never even heard the term LGBT. I was born in a small village and when I came out to my mom three years ago, my mom insisted that I am the only homosexual in the world. It is still very hard.

How effective are LGBTI advocacy groups, such as your own non-profit LesGo, in affecting change?

From my perspective, CBOs have played a significant, if not the most, role in this movement. I briefly made a calculation at the end of last year and conclude that we have more than 130 LGBTI CBOs and groups in China now. In the very beginning of the movement, we faced an environment where there was no discussion of LGBT issues at all. Searches on the Internet for news and information about LGBT or homosexuality were always negative and associated with crime or sex work. There were no positive reports about LGBT. As people are becoming more and more economically independent, we realized that we don't want to obey our parents’ orders to get married with a heterosexual man or woman. We realized that we needed to do something.

What drove me to found Lesgo is the ignorance prevalent in the government and among the people surrounding me. I just wanted to provide a safe space for people in the community to talk about LGBT and women’s issues and share their lives (life stories?). Through this cause, we can talk within our community and with the general public. Last year we wrote an original script and presented a play about domestic violence, LGBT issues, and trafficking of women. We presented these issues in order to trigger discussion in the public and this play attracted over 600 people. The local newspapers also reported our event.

In the very beginning, we had the desire to express ourselves and do something for this cause. I think many other people working or volunteering in CBOs share similar experiences and desire to do this work. Besides advocating to the public, we now realize that we need to work more strategically; we need to collaborate with more professionals like lawyers, scholars, and journalists. We need more allies involved in this movement if we want to get recognition and protection in law and policy. If we want to approach the government, we need to document the legal obstacles, legal claims, and other needs of this community. The LGBT movement in China has developed from nothing to what it is now—a movement demanding equality and more protection about our daily life.

156th session of the United Nations Committee against Torture

Alexandra Cheng CMC '18Student Journalist
Featured image credit: Matt Popovich.
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