China's LGBT community expresses disappointment after Shanghai Pride cancelled indefinitely - ABC News

Amy Yang always wanted to travel outside of China, but she didn't expect her life to change as much as it did.

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Having now completed her studies, the 27-year-old owns her own accessory business and says her current life, living with her girlfriend in Melbourne's CBD, is beyond her wildest dreams.

"When I was in China I didn't really realise my sexuality," she said.

"I didn't know there was any possibility for me to live a different life, to be able to live with another woman."

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Homosexuality was officially declassified as a mental disorder in China in 2001 and is no longer considered illegal, but there remain significant obstacles for China's LGBT community.

Last month, organisers of China's largest LGBT festival, Shanghai Pride, said they would cancel the annual event indefinitely.

In a blog post on their website, the organisers gave no explanation for their decision, stating: "We love our community, and we are grateful for the experiences we've shared together. No matter what, we will always be proud — and you should be, too."

One of the main organisers, Charlene Liu, said in a statement posted on Facebook that "the decision was difficult to make but we have to protect the safety of all involved", without elaborating.

Shanghai Pride declined the ABC's request to comment on why it cancelled the event.

Coming from the north-western city of Xi'an, Ms Yang said it was expected of young people to marry and have a traditional family just like their parents, which made living her current lifestyle impossible in China.

"If we go back to China, we would need to pretend we're friends," she said.

"I may need to hide my sexuality and that would be difficult."

'Now is not the best moment'

Shanghai Pride is also one of China's longest running LGBT events.(Reuters: Aly Song)

Professor Hongwei Bao from the University of Nottingham has been studying queer identity in China for decades.

He said traditional family ideals and a lack of civic space created a difficult environment for China's LGBT community.

"The biggest obstacle for [people] in China is really this pressure from their families for them to get married heterosexually," he said.

"LGBT people can live quite happily if they don't ask for their rights, but for people who want their unique voices heard and to be visible, now is not the best moment."

Decades of enforced social norms in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s gave way to a period of relative social freedom in the late 1990s, Professor Bao said.

After the 2008 Olympics, however, the Chinese Communist Party sought to regain some of that control, with policy changes such as the Foreign NGO Law giving the government more discretion in allowing civil society organisations to grow.

These changes had direct implications for China's LGBT community, as many organisations dependent on foreign funding were wiped out.

Shanghai Pride ran its first volunteer-run event in 2009, and grew over the next decade to become renowned for its queer film festival and art exhibits.

Informal cultural learning is a key source of sexual education in China.(Flickr: Kris Krüg)

Professor Bao said a high-profile cancellation such as this was symbolic of a shrinking civic space in China, particularly under President Xi Jinping.

"It illustrates the changes that we are seeing now," he said.

"It basically passes on the information to other groups, that if you don't want to obey our rules, this is what will happen."

'I can be myself in Melbourne'

Just like Ms Yang, Blair, who only wants to be known by his first name, was certain he wanted to go abroad, but admits that the decision to study a Masters of Media wasn't out of any great passion for the field.

"My dream to study abroad was really not for study at all, it was more for my own lifestyle," he said.

"I wanted to experience little things like holding hands in public, because I can't do that in China."

In Melbourne, Blair said he was able to experience freedom for the first time, wearing as much makeup as he liked without feeling like people were staring.

"I can be myself in Melbourne," he said.

Blair says moments like the shutdown of Shanghai Pride are demoralising for China's LGBT community.(Supplied)

Now working as a freelance journalist in China, Blair has been able to find his crowd and is openly gay to his friends and workplace, but like Ms Yang, doesn't feel comfortable sharing that part of his life with his parents.

Having experienced life in Melbourne, Blair can see that he has less freedom in China and hopes to be able to move back overseas in the future.

Blair said moments like the shutdown of Shanghai Pride were a constant source of frustration, demonstrating a cruel irony where in theory he was accepted, but in practice he was not.

"It's sad for the LGBT community because at times it feels like there is progress, but in other ways they shut us down," he said.

"Even on television sometimes, even basic things cannot be aired, even though we have seen it elsewhere."

Informal cultural learning is a key source of sexual education in China, as Blair said he would find queer films to fill the gaps in his education.

A recent survey conducted by the China Family Planning Association, Tsinghua University and China Youth Network involving more than 50,000 Chinese university students found that only 15 per cent said they were 'very satisfied' with their experience of sexual education in high school.

Cultural activism has been one space where the LGBT community has made some inroads over the years, with art, clubs and film with queer characteristics becoming more common.

Nevertheless, China's state-owned television networks remain heavily censored.

Professor Bao said recent directives suggesting gay romance should be replaced with friendship send a clear message to the Chinese audience.

"In other words, gay people cannot live happily together after all, they cannot have sex, they have to be friends."

Putting Taiwan on the map

Andy Liu has been involved in organising LGBT events, including this year's pride march.(Supplied)

Across the strait it's a different story for Andy Liu.

Growing up in Taiwan, he said his family was supportive of him and he could turn on his TV and see gay celebrities.

"I feel like general public support for the LGBT community in Taiwan has been mostly relatively high," he said.

"Also, there was an openly gay man hosting one of the most popular talk shows in Taiwan, so I feel like that also helped push the dialogue forward a lot."

Operating under de facto independence from mainland China, Taiwan's democratic political system has created an oasis of LGBT acceptance in Asia, with the island nation legalising same-sex marriage last year.

Although he doesn't believe in the institution of marriage, Mr Liu said it was important for him to contribute to the campaign.

"I believe in the abolition of marriage, but I will fight for marriage equality because I feel like if this discrimination is written into law, it will add to the discrimination that queer people already face in their everyday lives."

Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage last year.(Reuters: Tyrone Siu)

Mr Liu, who has been involved in organising LGBT events, said a pride march in June was able to go ahead due to Taiwan's ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus, unlike other parts of Asia, which mostly had to cancel or move their pride events online.

"There was a political aim, we wanted to put Taiwan on the map," he said.

"And it started pouring heavily with rain, Lady Gaga's new album had just come out so we played Rain On Me on a speaker while dancing in the rain."

With no prospect of same-sex marriage in China, Ms Yang hopes to become a permanent resident in Australia and settle down with her partner.

And after hearing the story of a close friend whose parents refused to accept their child's non-heterosexuality, Ms Yang said she was likely to keep her life in Australia a secret from her family.

"That story made me really worried, one day if I decide to tell my parents, what will they think of me?"

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-12/chinas-lgbt-community-disappointment-shanghai-pride/12650950