China Comes Out, Minus Parade

A first-ever Gay Pride week shows how far China has come since decriminalizing homosexuality 12 years ago, and how far it has to go.
2009-06-09
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Woman views a painting depicting three lesbians at an art exhibition in Shanghai, April 17, 2008.
Woman views a painting depicting three lesbians at an art exhibition in Shanghai, April 17, 2008.
AFP

HONG KONG—The 2008 Beijing Olympics were described as China’s “coming-out ball,” but the gay community in the eastern metropolis of Shanghai says the country is only now coming cautiously out of the closet during the country’s first-ever Gay Pride week.

“The events will begin on Sunday, and then different venues will host different events through the week. Then there’ll be a big party on the following Saturday,” said a New Zealand national taking part in Shanghai Pride Week, which runs from June 8-14.

“The party on Sunday will consist mainly of a banquet, and then they will show a film about the past 20 years of the gay scene in China,” he added.

...This could be a huge step in the visibility of the queer community in China."

Organizer Hannah Miller

Run by community events group ShanghaiLGBT, the program will include diverse parties, talks, discussions, and beauty contests—but no parade, the hallmark of gay pride events in other major cities.

Instead, organizers are billing the event as a way to “celebrate the diversity and future of the Shanghai Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer community,” known collectively in slang Chinese as “tongzhi” or “comrades.”

ShanghaiLGBT is a social group and e-mail list with more than 1,000 members, run by eight moderators.

No parade

Organizers have said they took legal advice, and were told that the Chinese authorities were unlikely to approve a march on the streets of the booming financial hub.

Legal experts said permission to gather publicly was in effect the same as permission to stage a street march, however.

“If the authorities have already given them permission to congregate, then they should also give permission for them to hold a march, because the two things are basically the same,” Chinese University of Hong Kong researcher Wang Youjin said.

“The right to hold a public meeting and the right to march are the same right. So they should have the right to hold a march.”

Many events

gay-china-200.jpg
Dancer applies makeup before performing at a gay bar in Wuhan, Nov. 29, 2007. AFP Photo: RFA
Two of the festival’s organizers, U.S. nationals Tiffany Lemay and Hannah Miller, told local media they see Shanghai, where they have lived for many years, as one of China’s most liberal and progressive cities.

Nonetheless, homosexuality was until recently regarded as a mental illness by the ruling Communist Party. It was decriminalized only 12 years ago, in 1997.

The Shanghai Pride events listings include a performance by Shanghai jazz singer Coco Zhao, a literary open mike event, and a “hottest body” competition, culminating in a gala event to raise money for AIDS orphans in China.

Miller told Asian gay Web site Fridae that Shanghai now boasts some 10 gay or lesbian venues, compared with just two when she arrived in the city seven years ago.

“A parade is not an option in China,” Fridae, one of a growing number of Asian gay sites offering dating, news and events listings, quoted her as saying.

“So I want Pride to be as good as it can be considering where it is being held. If it is a successful event, this could be a huge step in the visibility of the queer community in China,” she said.

Stigma remains

China’s online communities noted the events, but forum and Twitter discussions were quiet in the absence of the eye-catching pictures of marches that characterize gay pride in other cities.

More and more well-heeled urban Chinese have begun “coming out” in recent years, and while some find acceptance among their peers, social attitudes still strongly favor marriage and children.

How many Chinese would identify themselves as gay is unknown, as social stigma associated with homosexuality remains widespread. Many choose to marry despite their orientation.

China’s communist rulers treated homosexuality as a psychological problem for decades, removing it from an official list of mental disorders only in 2001.

The country’s health ministry has estimated that there are between five million and 10 million gay men in China, but activists say the actual number is far higher.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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