Increasing the visibility of LGBTS in China

Hu Mingliang (2nd L) and his partner Sun Wenlin (2nd R) sign on a rainbow flag - a symbol of the LGBT movement - during their legally unrecognised wedding ceremony in Changsha, central China's Hunan province on May 17, 2016. The legally unrecognised same-sex marriage was held in an increasingly vocal tide advocating for equal rights for China's sexual minorities.
PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - With the growth of social media, there is much more information on the community today, but they are still fighting for their legal rights.

When his fellow playmates wrote love letters to girls, Devin Ji Guangyu, then 12 or 13, did the same, but also found boys to be attractive.

He looked up to male classmates who excelled in studies and sports, but thought it was just mere admiration.

In his teenage days, he first learned about the term tongxinglian (homosexual) from fellow anonymous users in online chat rooms, when the Internet had just begun to get popular in China.

At 17, he gathered up enough courage to check out a gay gathering in his hometown, Anshan in Liaoning province. It turned out to be his first time learning everything about gay culture from some 30 other gay men.

Now 27, Ji is working for Blue City, the parent company of a gay dating app, Blued in Beijing.

Blue City's Danlan (literally "light blue") portal was founded by Geng Le, an ex-policeman from Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, in 2000 as a personal online diary of sorts. It slowly evolved into a forum for the Chinese gay community.

In April 2013, Blue City rolled out Blued, which now boasts 27 million users.

While there is little organised religion in China to condemn homosexuality, the topic of LGBT is considered taboo. Homophobia reigned in the vast land of 1.3 billion people, where homosexuals used to be criminalised under the crime of "hooliganism", until it was abolished in 1997.

It was not until 2001 that homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness. Until then, people who displayed a tendency for homosexuality were forced to undergo electric shock treatment.

"Due to lack of supervision and enforcement, clinics offering such 'treatment' still exist today," said Wei Jiangang, person-in-charge of Beijing Gender Health Education, a non-governmental organisation focusing on issues of gender, sexuality and sexual health.

Zou Shenglong, 26, from Jing­dezhen, Jiangxi province, shared that he was not aware of the concept of homosexuality even though he sensed he had feelings for men.

He only discovered the existence of same-sex love in his university days through movies, young adult novels and academic research for a sociology course, which he admitted was carried out mostly to satisfy his own curiosity.

A gay novel titled Sorry Sorry prompted his revelation in 2010.

"I spent the following week thinking about the plot and then it hit me: 'I am one of them'!"

Last year, he came out to his suspicious sister, a nurse, who was earlier notified of his profile on Blued by an acquaintance. She wanted to know if his "condition" could be "corrected".

"I patiently explained that it is not possible," Zou said.

Chinese traditional patriarchal values emphasise marriage and childbearing to continue the family's bloodline. Stigmatising homosexuality has led to misunderstandings of LGBTs; the most common perception is that it was an "illness" that could be cured.

To please their parents, some lesbians and gay men partner up to enter into civil marriage. There are also gay people who hide their sexual orientation and marry straight women.

While it is difficult to measure and quantify acceptance of LGBTs across all levels of society, Beijing Gender Health Education's Wei said the number of media reports on LGBT issues has increased from 300 to 800 a year in the last five years.

Discussions on the issues of LGBT have also expanded to include the pink economy and LGBT creative content.

Homosexual-themed drama series are gaining popularity online, where government censors allow a somewhat larger degree of leeway compared with traditional media.

The LGBT community's willingness to pamper themselves and improve their appearances makes them a perfect target audience for advertisers.

Geng said in a recorded lecture that while the LGBTs make up 5 per cent of the total population - which accounts for 70 million in China, the size of Britain's population - their individual consumption power is three to five times higher than straight people.

Compared to the days when knowledge about LGBTs was hard to come by, as illustrated in the stories of Ji and Zou, the growth of the Internet and social media today means an abundance of information is just a click away.

There are WeChat official accounts dedicated to discussing LGBT issues.

Gay couple Tommy and Joe shared their everyday life through their WeChat official account "Three Men in One House". ("Three men" refers to the couple and Joe's son from a previous marriage.)

"Rainbow Babies", meanwhile, was managed by a lesbian couple, Douzi and Zhimabing, who were married in the Britain in 2014. They are now raising their twin babies conceived through in vitro fertilisation with donated sperm.

The LGBTs in China have come a long way, from hiding their identity to coming out of the closet. They are now fighting for their legal rights in China.

Same-sex marriage has not been legalised and there are also no laws to punish discrimination against sexual minorities. In April, a court in Changsha, Hunan province, heard China's first court case on same-sex marriage, although a judge later ruled that the gay couple could not get married.

Geng, whose Blue City works with the health department to run HIV test centres in Beijing, was optimistic about the future of the community in China.

"I believe China will become more and more open as it pursues civilised development. When more media report on this issue, the government will be more willing to work together with us, and gay people will have more courage to come out of the closet and face their identities."

Wei said a large part of the work of the NGOs in China still focus on increasing the visibility of LGBTs at the moment. "We can only move on when the education system, government policies and social benefits for the LGBTs can guarantee adequate protection for the group. But now we don't have these yet."

As for Zou, his wish is simple: "I hope everyone understands that we are essentially all the same."

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