The Besieged Rainbow22 min read

Dispatches from an ally of China’s LGBT movement – Xiaoyu Lu

The phone call came in at seven or eight in the night. After saying hello, the voice paused. As I was about to hang up,  the voice asked whether I worked for the UN. Yes, I answered. He explained that he was calling from the hotel which we booked for the conference participants. He hesitated again. Is there anything wrong? I asked.

There had been a group of strangely dressed people at the reception, he said, and the hotel would like to confirm whether I had really invited them. I could have started a lengthy lecture about the term “strangely dressed people,” but I did not. Yes, we invited them, I confirmed. I detected a tone of embarrassment in his next question. He asked what kind of conference we were holding, and whether it had been registered with the Public Security Bureau. I raised my voice, and in a solemn manner said it was a UN conference on public health, and there was neither need nor obligation to register. He couldn’t come up with a reply, and hung up.

Our conference was on the rights of transgender sex workers. I had only known the existence of this community in China through UN reports as I began to work as a project intern. The next morning, the conference participants arrived at the UN compound at Liangmaqiao, Beijing. I held a list of pseudonyms. The military guards mistook them as petitioners who had come to the UN China office as their last resort, to appeal against local authorities. Our security “boss” waved a hand to let them pass without raising a question; he simply said he seen the same thing while working at the Danish Embassy. Matching the pseudonyms with their true identities was an intricate task when assigning seats. I thought of a drag party I went to in Oxford once, inopportunely. That sultry and overfilled club was as far from this conference room, decorated with paper name cards, as could be.

The participants rarely mentioned discrimination or exclusion in the reports. There were more urgent issues: where to get HIV tests with privacy; how to obtain medicine while away from your residence address (registered HIV patients were eligible for free medicine, but if they left the location of their hukou registration, access became tricky); and how to minimize the risks of violence and abuse at work. When a police raid happened in a hotel or guesthouse they worked out of, the police unit would first search whether the suspect had taken “an unusual amount of condoms” as the yardstick for whether they worked illegally for paid sex. This practice led sex workers to take fewer condoms or not use them at all, exposing them to greater health risks.

A trans woman was the spokeswoman of the group – she was hyper, provocative, and occasionally whimsical. She was one of the few participants actively employing “rights talk,” or at least who gave this rhetoric some credit. She later told a story of her friend who contracted HIV from a client, whom she continuously encouraged not to give up on life. She meant to dispel the pessimistic defeatism of the conference, but concluded her story, “It is important to remain hopeful… though my friend died soon afterwards.” The gallows humor felt extremely dark for me, whether deliberate or unintended. Nonetheless, everyone chuckled – and in that kind of meeting, as I soon discovered, rarely anyone ever chuckled.

Police raids led sex workers to take fewer condoms or not use them at all, exposing them to greater health risks

“I am still astonished to see them with naked eyes,” Jin whispered to me in a break during the conference, turning to me and covering her mouth.

She was completing an internship responsible for the communications and logistics for this conference. The second half of the session was a group discussion. We moved the tables onto the lawn on a not-scorching Beijing summer day. Mosquitos soon found the crowd, droning around our legs. Jin and I could not help reaching down to expel them, and I noticed mutual distress in our exchange of glances. Though we were educated and fully informed about the unlikelihood of HIV transmission through mosquito bites, we were even more anxious about how the participants would interpret our unease.

Two months later, I was standing in the grand lobby of Beijing’s Donghu Villa for an event titled “China-US Health Summit,” an entrepreneurship competition for the health sector capitals of both countries. It was the summer of 2015, and the streets of Beijing were pumped with venture capital, angel investors and urban legends of overnight start-up success. My friend D had flown back with a degree in finance from the US, and worked for an internet firm imbued with such dreams. He talked me into the “crucial necessity of bringing social capital into public welfare.” Our first pilgrimage was to the “start-up street” of Zhongguancun, dubbed China’s Silicon Valley. A gigantic advertisement was broadcasting 24 hours of teams which had just landed their first round of investment. It felt like a mid-afternoon TV prize show. All the offices were still fully lit at 10 p.m. We walked down the street, had drinks at Garage Coffee, and discussed our start-up idea: a social media platform that would provide accessible health-service information for China’s LGBT population and map out LGBT-friendly venues. The second night, we went to a gay bar in Sanlitun, but no one talked to us. The two girls who eventually did had come there after reading BL (“boys love”) novels, and D went home with one of them – I was rather dubious how that might help with our “customer survey.”

No one taught me how to interact with sexual minorities as a straight cisgender man

When I stood in the lobby of Donghu Villa, I was reminded of the gay bar. I was out of place, both then and now. At the start-up competition, everyone distributed their name cards as if they were chips in a casino, only it looked like everyone was winning as the chips piled up in their hands. People took us to be students before we even opened our mouths. We drew lots, and were the first to present.

“Even with a conservative estimate of 4% of the total population, sexual minorities in our country are… are…” I faced the crowd and stuttered my first sentence, before pausing and starting again.

“Even with a conservative estimate of 4% of the total population, sexual minorities in our country are over 50 million.”

Silence. Some in the audience lowered their heads. Others looked up as if there was a leak in the ceiling. I continued. Chuckles and whispers spread like water ripples. My companion sensed it and gave me a look while adjusting his glasses, but I failed to decipher the message. I finished my talk. A clinical professor in the panel understood our project, and raised the question of political risks. The business representative asked about “financial sustainability.” Then Feng Tang, a gynecologist turned management consultant, also renowned as a flamboyant writer, broke the silence, balancing the microphone jauntily as he spoke:

“This is a rather fancy way to describe an LGBT Tinder.”

“It is a health-focused social media app,” I replied. “If the users hook up with health awareness, our purpose is practically achieved.” At last the crowd was entertained.

No one taught me how to interact with sexual minorities as a straight cisgender man. Not in China. Not in Europe. It seemed taken for granted that the worldwide generation I was born into had a certain understanding of LGBT issues, and that the battle was merely with the old and more conservative generation. I belonged to a coalition that I knew little about. Yet my gaydar  did not come pre-installed. G was my first close friend from the LGBT community. She talked hastily and conclusively, and you could hear the full stop at the end of each of her sentences.

I never raised the question of her sexuality. It seemed odd to. And how should I frame it? Strictly speaking, I knew I should start with sexual orientation and then gender identity, but the conversation would be buried in the flood of terminology. G talked about her girlfriend one day, and I finally seized the chance to ask, but it didn’t sound natural. It was like a question that was biding its time to make an appearance, fully prepared and artificially imposed. Sex with men was uncomfortable, G answered, so she knew and became certain about her sexual orientation. My family must know, she told me, yet the topic was never brought up. G was not an activist – she was far more interested in Africa than the LGBT movement when I knew her. So it was very much to my surprise, after her return to Guangzhou upon graduating from a UK university, that she began to work on LGBT health programs and queer activism.

Guangzhou was the city said to host the largest number of LGBT civil society organizations in China. The nationwide debate over LGBT issues in education was also kindled in Guangzhou. In 2015, Qiubai, an undergraduate student at the city’s Sun Yat-sen University, lodged a lawsuit against the Ministry of Education about its lack of regulations on textbooks discriminating against homosexuality. She came out during the two-year proceedings of multiple lawsuits and administrative complaints, and in 2017 she lost the case. I met her before the final court ruling in Beijing. Towards the end of an LGBT workshop in the UN compound, the representative next to me was reading a message from his phone and mumbled, “Qiubai is coming.”.Then there she was, suddenly at the door. She did look like a student: not tall, frail, and with a shy smile, remote from any impression of a determined and polemical activist. I asked about the progress of her case, and she answered in a brief and polite manner. After greeting everyone, she found her friend and left the room.

In the bridgeable gap between establishment and activists, room for progress and regression existed hand-inhand

I heard about the result of her lawsuit in Oxford. At the time, another activist whose name was all over the news also happened to be in Oxford. M was one of the “Feminist Five” sisters . Based in the UK now, M participated in the pride parade in London and published an article titled ‘I Went to Jail for Handing out Feminist Stickers in China’ at The Guardian. The first question thrown to M during her talk at Oxford showed how her public image had grown beyond her control:

“Tell us about your experience of being jailed in China.”

The audience burst into laughter at the unfurnished bluntness of the question. M responded, and mentioned her interactions with the All-China Women’s Federation – the government-controlled NGO responsible for promoting womens policies and rights. She described the “bridgeable gap” between the establishment and the activists, where room for progress and regression existed hand-in-hand. However, the audience were still most interested in her prison anecdotes.

She wanted to say she had no enemies, but neither her protagonists nor antagonists were willing to believe her. After my encounters with Qiubai and M, I found it hard to spot an LGBT activist in the crowd. You might imagine a beam of magnesium light on their faces; something must be unique or outstanding. Yet their faces are the most ordinary, their voices the most plain, and their gestures the most mundane. It is inaccurate to name them “dissidents,” as it is unclear what they are rebelling against – the target is not a specific rule, an individual leader or a political regime. That is why the stepping-down of responsible parties or the revision of legal regulations often fails to quiet them. They are against an ethos, a habitus and a consciousness.

I remember the day I walked into the UN office in Beijing and the acting team leader Andrea said they had an LGBT project and needed my help on it. I knew nothing about the subject, I replied. Having a heart would do, Andrea told me. He is Italian, educated in the UK, and had worked at the UN for a long time. Earlier, we had talked about the historic compromises of the Italian Communist Party; communism began with a commitment to sexual liberation, he said, and once in power communists should be radically progressive. We followed this line of thinking with attempts to introduce to China the experience of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education (known as the most progressive example in Latin America) and that of the Vietnam’s Law on Marriage and Family in 2014 that allowed same-sex weddings (albeit without legal recognition).

Packaged in talk of modernization reform or South-South Cooperation (global dialogue between Southern countries), however, these “right talks” rarely resonated with Chinese governmental counterparts. Only the health approach seemed to work. Edmund Settle, a policy advisor previously working as a civil servant in China’s Ministry of Health, supervised the UN’s regional project on LGBT rights. His guanxi network established the first contact with the government to ensure the survival of this human rights project in China. Hence the entry point was found, and governmental engagement was included in the project report. But the LGBT issue was rendered as a health challenge, primarily associated with the prevalence of diseases transmitted among “men who have sex with men.”

Two years later, I met Andrea again before returning to the project in Beijing. He was back in Rome now. For once, he was not in a suit and tie. Nothing else had changed much – he was still stationed at an international organization, this time working on migration, and worked for sexual minorities among the refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea: “the marginalized of the marginalized,” as he put it. Andrea never struck me as driven by his sexual orientation or involved in a cause of self-redemption. His concern was those simply marginalized people who happened to be LGBT, either refugees or HIV patients. I wished him the best of luck, and he did the same.

Right talks rarely resonated with Chinese governmental counterparts … LGBT was rendered as a health challenge

So, in that suffocating and sweltering Beijing summer, I sat at Andrea’s old desk. The LGBT project, now led by the UN program manager J, focused on psychological health. Ilan Meyer – the psychiatric epidemiologist who provided expert testimony in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case that ensured the rights of same-sex marriage in California – visited the office. In front of a Chinese audience, he mentioned Magnus Hirschfeld, the German sexologist who founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee and organized the first modern advocacy campaign for homosexual and transgender rights. In 1931, after his tour in the United States, Hirschfeld visited Asia, and during his time in Shanghai had began a relationship that lasted until his death with a young Chinese man called Li Shiutong. In 1933, the Nazis looted Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sex Research and threw his library collection onto the heaps of “un-German” books to be burned, forcing the couple into exile in France.

As Meyer continued to talk about the universality of homosexuality – just as Hirschfeld might have, some 80 years ago – I thought about Li Shiutong’s family. Exceptionally progressive at the time, they accepted their son’s sexuality and even threw a farewell party before the couple left China. Seen as the institutional root of Chinese tradition, family is too often assumed to be a reactionary force, holding back transgressive thought and action. Yet its metamorphosis can also happen much faster. Family members cannot wait for structural social transitions to provide a different framework of belief about sexual minorities. Once radical confrontations and punitive measures fail to address their sentiments against a child’s “betrayal,” they often seek alternative means to recognize their family members again. The institution of family adapts, bent by the will of its members into a transformed shape. So it is hardly surprising that the deep-rooted and occasionally over-stated family culture of East Asia has also led to an unparalleled expansion of a specific LGBT civil organization in China, PFLAG: ‘Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.’

Founded in Guangzhou in 2008, PFLAG China, in the words of its community members, has been “politically safe and well-developed.” After all, it serves a mediatory role between the LGBT community, their families and the public, nicely fitting into the governmental goal of a harmonious society. The parents of those who come out of the closet are provided with mutual support and consultation to manage the transition from confrontation to acceptance, and in some cases even to advocacy. The reaction of the family normally starts with “almost hanging themselves,” in the words of J. He was asked by his mother directly whether he was gay. When he said yes, his mother initially said it was a result of the “unhealthy influence of many years in the United States.” J returned to Beijing and started to work with the LGBT Center before taking his UN position. In time, his mother came to terms with his orientation and became an active member of PFLAG China, widely known as “Mama Pan.”

While Ilan Meyer was still in Beijing, the China Netcasting Services Association issued its ‘General Rules for Reviewing Netcasting Content’ in June 2017, a tightening of censorship that explicitly banned “abnormal sexual relationships like homosexuality.” Its publication stirred controversy and provoked the seventy-one-year-old Mama Pan. With another two moms from PFLAG China, she decided to appeal and visited the governmental agencies in person. Theirs was different from the common pattern of shangfang, or petitioning. They set off in the morning, waited in the reception hall of three governmental departments until someone showed up, then explained and submitted their appeal. As expected, the higher-level officials who could make any authoritative explanation or decision were “not in the office,” but after persistent calls and requests, some staff eventually came downstairs and respectfully took their appeal materials and promised they would get back to them – which they never did. The mothers nevertheless thought they had made their point: their children had done nothing shameful or wrong. “You guys at the UN should make some noise,” Mama Pan told us, making us rather ashamed.

That summer, I became more involved with the LGBT community. I wanted to do something – even if that felt like a cliché you might hear from a young graduate beginning an internship at a development agency in a foreign land. I went to parties, interviewed civil society organizations and attended advocacy campaigns. I received more suspicion than I did two years ago, not from the authorities but from the LGBT community itself. To be a participating outsider proved far more suspicious than being a distanced, empathetic outsider. The LGBT community-based organizations were aggregated in a joint apartment building in eastern Beijing; the staff joked that it would be easier for the police if the authorities decided to crack down on them. The Beijing LGBT Centre received a number of complaints from their neighbors for a “high flow of guests.”

Several floors away was the Gender Health Institute, disguised as a Korean furniture importer. It nearly deceived me. While I was waiting in the corridor for a meeting, a lady walked towards the apartment opposite the “furniture importer” into a door marked as the office of Feminist Voices – a leading feminist organization and social media platform (associated with the arrested feminists, Feminist Voices was banned in 2018, one day after International Women’s Day). They were less surreptitious about their identity. I stopped the lady, and asked her whether the furniture company was actually the Gender Health Institute. She gave me a rapid, alert glimpse, and said no, she hadn’t heard about such a thing. She went in and closed the door firmly behind her. I began to walk downstairs, until I caught a friend I knew from the Health Institute smoking in the stairwell. She led me back to the same floor and to the meeting room, which was indeed the “furniture importer.” Apparently I looked like a plainclothes police officer, she grinned, after listening to my story.

To be a participating outsider proved far more suspicious than being a distanced, empathetic outsider

I began to question the trustworthiness of my appearance. At first, people were curious about my gender identity and sexual orientation. Then they thought I must have family members or close friends in the LGBT population. Later, they became confused and suspicious when they found neither to be the case. Being a young, straight and early-married male did not help the situation. They sought my “real motives,” other than superficial intellectual curiosity or human rights rhetoric – something deep-rooted and authentic, as resilient and persistent as one’s identity. Maybe the point of the movement was to persuade people like me, who did not have any natural bonds to the LGBT community, I said. Often I received a shrug. A shrug as if to a one-time curious observer; a shrug to a seasonal jumper-on to the LGBT bandwagon, as if following the latest fashion or trend; a shrug that distrusted the very possibility of understanding and entering a community without being one of them. Ironically, this distance drew me closer to the alienating experience of being a minority, of trying to blend into the mainstream.

There were, of course, exceptional individuals who were willing to believe in and engage with my intellectual curiosity. Not long after the Mama Pan’s protest against the General Rules, I went to a private screening for a documentary film on sex reassignment surgery. There I met A, the protagonist of the film. A was an agender individual who chose not to recognize a binary gender division. They kept short hair and paced as they spoke. Each word was like a square rock or lump of lead falling on the ground. I had a delicate respect and worry for A’s activism, as I felt they would not compromise – not to authority, to emotion nor to any prevailing opinion in any given community. A told us at the beginning of the event not to take photographs, as they could be accused of “spreading pornographic material.”

The film recorded the mastectomy that A went through in their late twenties. They said in the film:

I felt uneasy when my secondary sex characteristics emerged. Two extra pieces of flesh, different from my body in the past, and everything became inconvenient. So removing the breasts for me was not changing my body, but restoring my body to what felt comfortable in my memory.

The surgery was conducted in a public hospital well known in the LGBT community. Doctors there had started to perform sex reassignment surgeries in the 1990s. With a frequency of one surgery per day now, they were well used to cases like A’s, and upper body reconstruction was considered a relatively easy surgery. The right to this surgery was often cited by the Chinese government in the Universal Periodic Review, a UN human rights mechanism, as evidence of protecting the rights and access of sexual minorities.

A’s diagnosis paper stated “trans-sexualism” (yixing bing), which in this context referred to the “disease” of patients who were distressed about their assigned sex and intended to change their biological features. This was not a normative judgment from the doctors. As the hospitals were still officially defined as places to cure diseases, the pathologization acted as an essential step to justify the medical solution.

The film was, in a light-hearted manner, titled A Fun Cut. A was filmed lying on the bed after the surgery, with two sand bags on their chest to “recover the links between skin and flesh.” They could finally, again, be shirtless during summer, while running the risk of being called a pervert in the swimming pool changing room. A was trained as an anthropologist, and explained how your assigned body at birth was a standard prototype, but customized options could be made to create a gendered body suitable to your liking.

“Would that not be too abstract?” I asked A. “When talking to the public about sexual minorities, they wouldn’t care for sophisticated feminist theories on gender identity and biopolitics. They would hope for a simple and straightforward answer.”

“You might be right,” A smiled, then asked gently, “but could this also be part of our imagination of the public?”

J and I waved goodbye to A at the metro station. Raindrops fell and soon turned into bullet-like hail, hitting the overhanging roof as the train light emerged through the welter. When we left the station, the streets were flooded, and we waded across the junction to a bar for M’s birthday gathering. She was back in China for the summer holiday.

I failed to spot her in the crowd. Her hair seemed even shorter now. A half-naked poster of her hung on an inner wall, themed around anti-domestic violence. She was using her birthday to fundraise for the “rainbow hotline,” a mental health helpline for the LGBT community, and greeted everyone holding a QR code for quick mobile donation. Technological-activism-cum-birthday, I thought. I wandered into the bar, which was one of the few that had survived the government’s cleanup campaign in the hutong districts. The live band sent another rounds of wishes to M. There was another group here for a separate birthday party, but the guests were merrily mixed and became indistinguishable. I was watching the rain at the doorstep and chatting with a young man next to me. After about five minutes, he paused and asked:

“I usually don’t raise this question so directly, but could I ask what your sexual orientation is?”

“Me? I’m straight.”

“Like straight straight?”

“Yes, like really straight.”

A girl nearby cut in and jested, “then we should kick you out now.”

The rain and hail stopped. Every means of affordable transportation was also gone, except for the shared bikes. I scanned and unlocked a bike and cycled across three ring roads to get home. In the rare quiet and cool I recollected the city I missed, and had never longed for so much before this moment, waiting for the blazing sunlight next morning. ∎

This translation, originally published in Chinese at in July 2017, was made possible by the support of donors at Patreon.