By Joshua Barajas
On the 21st floor of a nondescript building in central Beijing, a wall in apartment 2108 showcases more than 50 photos of people holding up signs with gay-friendly messages.
In one photo, Wu Youjian, known as China’s first parent to publicly support her gay son on nationwide television, holds up a handwritten sheet of paper that reads, “Love is the most beautiful rainbow.”
Founded in 2008, the LGBT Center in Beijing functions as a public, nonprofit haven for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Decorated with a mélange of rainbow-colored objects, the center aims to make the community more visible in a country that remains lukewarm to gay rights.
“Gay issues [are] not a priority for the government,” said Jinxia, the center’s administration manager, who asked to be identified by her last name only. “Most of our support has to come from NGOs.”
Sometimes lacking the wherewithal to pay the rent, the center relies on the support of Chinese partner organizations such as AiBai and Common Language to continue to provide activities organized by the center. The apartment’s furniture came mostly from volunteers and the community.
As one of two full-time staff members, Jinxia said the center goes beyond the movie screenings, gay chorus practices and health seminars it hosts every week. A psychological consultant from Peking University conducts a group session each week in which the center volunteers share their life stories with each other.
“The aim of the center is to provide a positive space, a platform to shake off those negative thoughts [that homosexuals face] and to enjoy life like everyone else,” said Jinxia.
There are no laws that criminalize homosexuality in China, but social acceptance of gays and lesbians has been piecemeal. Before 1997, homosexuality was considered a violation of China’s criminal code.
In China, the public upholds the stereotype that homosexuals are solely connected to the spread of AIDS, Jinxia said. According to the United Nations AIDS Agency (UNAIDS), the rate of HIV infection in China is relatively low (0.1 percent among adult). Of the 740,000 people living with HIV in China, 44 percent were infected through heterosexual transmission, three times the rate of homosexual transmission.
Although the Chinese government removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001, advertisements that claim to cure homosexuality through therapy can still be found online. Filmmaker Wei Xiaogang, who’s working on a documentary on the topic, said in an interview with Time Out Beijing that Guo’ao Psychology Hospital in Beijing advertises that it could cure gayness in two to five sessions that cost 500 to 800 RMB ($92-123) each.
In the United States, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, but Christian gay conversion camps such as Exodus International still claim to be able to cure homosexuality.
And while the Chinese government occasionally shuts down LGBT websites, cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which opened in its first LGBT center earlier this year, act as destinations for young gay adults.
“People in Beijing are quite tolerant,” said Hilary Shi, a 22-year-old volunteer at the center. “I feel easy here.”
A graduating journalism major at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Shi said she ended her three-year long distance relationship with her boyfriend recently to “find people like me.”
Shi attended a workshop organized by Les Plus, a lesbian magazine, and began volunteering at the center to become more involved within the gay community. “I feel like I need to do something to help improve the situation, maybe to help other lesbians or gays to recognize themselves for who they are,” she said.
The Chinese word for gay—“tongzhi”—dates back to the Cultural Revolution, meaning “comrade.” A term of address, it recognized a shared characteristic. Used in the gay community, it reinforces solidarity among the LGBT crowd.
Shi may be open about her sexuality in Beijing, but her parents back in Xiamen, a city in southeastern China, are not aware of Shi’s sexual orientation. She is wary about returning home because she thinks her parents will pressure her to meet a man. “If they realize their daughter’s gay, I don’t think they could take it,” Shi said.
A.J. Song, a Beijing Business and Technology University graduate, shares a similar story. Growing up in a small village, Song said it’s difficult to reveal his sexual orientation to his parents. “I’m the only child,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s not fair for them. I chose not to tell them yet.”
China’s 1979 one-child policy has made the decision difficult for some gay males to come out because in Chinese families, sons are expected to continue the family line. Homosexuality, Song said, is relatively unknown back home and coming out would be a burden to his parents. Yet he hasn’t experienced any opposition as a gay man in Beijing.
“People mind their own business,” he said. “People may find [homosexuality] disgusting, but they’re not going to act on it 99 percent of the time.”