Erwin Li is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In just its sixth year, Shanghai Pride has emerged as a major celebratory event for China’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. The weeklong festival features art exhibits, panel discussions, and even a marathon-picnic—all of whose locations span across many of the city’s most popular areas. But there’s more to the celebration than just fun. Shanghai Pride aims to promote awareness about China’s sexual minorities by openly addressing the unique social and cultural challenges that they face. For example, this year’s film festival displayed works on transgender identity and homophobic violence, while a panel discussion asked parents and relatives of LGBT children to share their stories of support and acceptance. In a society still dominated by traditional views on gender, Shanghai Pride thus offers a rare chance for solidarity, and an avenue towards greater social acceptance.
Still, some LGBT activists have recently adopted a more confrontational approach, requesting that China’s government legally recognize the rights of China’s LGBT community. In May 2013, a nineteen-year-old LGBT activist Xiang Xiaohan (a pseudonym) led an unregistered hundred-person march in Changsha, Hunan, where participants called for an end to homophobia and discrimination on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Xiang was detained for twelve days, and Weibo searches for “Changsha” and “protest” were unsurprisingly blocked.) Earlier this year, Xiang became the first LGBT activist to file a lawsuit against the government; after Hunan’s local authorities refused to register his LGBT rights organization, Xiang claimed that their written reply had defamed the LGBT community in China. And while Xiang’s case was dismissed by a local court, it did gain attention when state-sponsored media outlet Xinhua reported on the situation. Xiang also indicated that he does not intend to give up, telling BBC that he “will continue to try to encourage the government to safeguard gay and lesbian rights through laws.”
Does this more direct approach imply a growing trend in China’s LGBT movement? Only time will tell. Last month, a Beijing court agreed to hear a case involving a homosexual man suing a Chinese clinic for falsely advertising the efficacy of its “sexual reorientation therapies”—a procedure he claims caused him undue psychological harm. This case represents the first time legal channels have opened up for China’s sexual minorities. But legal options don’t equal protection, especially when court systems are still largely subject to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence. Under the policy of “don’t support, don’t ban, don’t promote,” Beijing has traditionally adopted a laissez faire approach to LGBT rights, choosing to ignore “private affairs” unless they affect “social stability.” This makes it difficult to predict both Party behavior and its effect on activism.
There are real dangers to confronting the government about political change. Chinese leaders have long been averse to granting citizens the right to self-organize, and so even peaceful festivals like Shanghai Pride have been unable to obtain a permit for a city parade. These types of restrictions have only intensified under President Xi Jinping, as crackdowns on human rights lawyers, journalists, and foreign NGOs have all ensued. The recent arrest of nine LGBT activists—Xiang among them—is certainly proof that that there are no guarantees for the development of this civil society movement.
Yet despite the political risks, this strain of confrontational activism will likely need to supplement its gentler, awareness-raising counterpart. After all, bold approaches to activism test and clarify lines in the sand while events like Shanghai Pride shape social attitudes to push those very boundaries. And as social acceptance for China’s LGBT population of roughly thirty million climbs, the CCP may feel compelled to acknowledge the needs of this community. The People’s Daily published a report last May titled “China’s LGBT Community Needs More Support” that described the prejudices against sexual minorities and the failure of conversion therapies, perhaps indicating a future space for activism. So while China’s LGBT movement may be young, Beijing should see the larger picture it represents: whether it’s through a festival or a protest, LGBT activists are presenting very real issues that won’t just disappear.