The LGBTIQ + movement in China is under attack. But international support can be a double-edged sword


People often ask me what it’s like to be queer or trans in China.

This was the number one question I encountered when I returned to Melbourne after three years in Shanghai, much of it devoted to reporting on China’s LGBTQI + community.

Often the question is asked with a frown and heavy tone because Australians tend to assume the worst.

Jinghua (far left) found a number of different events for the LGBTQI + community while living in China. (Supplied.)

But honestly, I had an amazing time: I went to a trans summit in Ningbo, a drag show in Hangzhou, and a lesbian run ice rink in Shanghai. I interviewed retired gay men and high school transgender activists.

Everywhere I traveled, I managed to find my people, and I felt like China was full of weird stories that I was happy to tell.

Another kind of homophobia

Homophobia in China is not what we are used to in Australia.

First, there aren’t really any religious lobbies in China. The government is officially atheist, and although religious observance is on the rise, most polls still report that the majority of Chinese are not affiliated with any religion.

There are also not many laws explicitly targeting LGBTIQ + people.

It is often said that homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, but the abolished offense (“hooliganism”) did not explicitly refer to homosexual acts.

Nowadays, the removal of queer and trans representation in the media is often delegated to industry organizations and hidden in professional guidelines which prohibit same-sex relationships and gender non-conformity alongside other verboten topics like adultery and superstition.

Reports often describe the attitude of the Chinese government towards us as “three no‘: no ​​approval, no disapproval, no promotion. But it is a little misleading.

Many LGBTIQ + services and businesses operate with government approval and even cooperation. For example, HIV awareness campaigns targeting gay men can work with the local health department.

A man is standing on a dance floor with his hands in the air, bathed in pink light.
The Shanghai Pride Festival abruptly closed in August 2020 after more than a decade.(Reuters: Aly Song)

At the same time, queer organizations are raided and harassed by police, or blocked from major online platforms like WeChat. In 2020, ShanghaiPRIDE – the country’s largest LGBTIQ + festival – announced its closure after 12 years, citing security concerns.

Gay activists face the same risks as other organizers: workers, feminists, ethnic minorities, religious groups and human rights defenders.

So it is perhaps more correct to say that there is both approval and disapproval, and that homophobia is inseparable from human rights in general.

Most of the time, LGBTIQ + groups come into conflict with the authorities, this is because they are perceived as a political threat.

Queers and Patriots

“In recent years in China, there has been a crackdown on civil society organizations and various forms of social and political activism,” said Dr. Hongwei Bao, an expert on Chinese studies and queer theory at the University of Nottingham.

The new generation of nationalists online often describe the LGBTIQ + community as foreign, despite the long history of sexual and gender diversity in Chinese culture.

Chinese gay activists have been accused of being puppets of the West or agents of ‘hostile foreign forces‘.

As a result, it is difficult for the international community to support Chinese activists without fueling the nationalist backlash.

Receiving donations or other support from abroad may lead to accusations of collusion with foreign governments. Any association with global movements risks giving the impression that LGBTIQ + advocacy in mainland China is not Chinese enough.

A group of people stand behind a long rainbow colored flag on a New York street.
Shanghai Pride representatives attend World Pride celebrations in New York.(Supplied.)

‘Part of the world’

The point is, modern LGBTIQ + activism in China has been part of a global cross-border movement since its inception – a movement that has never been led solely by the West.

Dr Bao traces the emergence of gay advocacy groups in China until the mid-1990s.

In 1995, Beijing hosted the United Nations World Conference on Women, and the decade also saw the rapid development of the country’s NGO sector as the government introduced a policy framework for nonprofit organizations, where the Chinese political system left little room for non-governmental organizations. organizations.

South African activist Bev Ditsie’s documentary Lesbians Free Everyone: The Beijing Retrospective shows how activists from all continents converged on Beijing in 1995.


In the decades that followed, Chinese LGBTIQ organizations continued to work with allies abroad, especially in other non-Western and Chinese-speaking countries.

For Dr Bao, it is essential to rethink the common misconception that the LGBTIQ + community is not Chinese enough.

“And second, to see China as a part of the world, where international practices are already deeply entrenched.”

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