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‘Being LGBTQ in China is difficult – but more and more young people are bravely coming out’

Ying Xin, the executive director of the Beijing LGBT Center Beijing on the battle for queer acceptance in the world's most populous country.

By Will Stroude

Words: Cliff Joannou

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Although same-sex activity is no longer illegal in China and homosexuality has long been declassified as a mental illness, there is a long way to go and LGBTQ people still face discrimination and the threat of violence — from members of the public as well as the government.

But people such as Ying Xin are trying to make a difference. Born in the small city of Xiangyang in Hubei Provinces, she has been the executive director at the Beijing LGBT Center for seven years.

The centre provides support for a growing number of younger LGBTQ people who are becoming more vocal about LGBTQ rights, and more visible in a culture that has traditionally pushed its queer community into the closet.

“We can’t do Pride [parades] due to the current policy on gatherings, so we have other forms of Pride,” Ying Xin tells Attitude.

And she’s not a lone voice, with a growing army of activists is looking to raise the voice of queer people across China. A host of others, working across the community, are her comrades in queer arms.

 “There are many, we cannot say one or several people lead the LGBTIQ rights in China. It is team work from different cities and perspectives,” she says.

 “Like Xian from Common Language, Xiaogang from Gender Institute, Aqiang from PFlag, Yanzi from Equal Rights for LGBT in China, Tingting Wei from Gender Institute, Doudou from Tongcheng, Yinyan from Xi’an Relax. Also, Acid, Karen, Pipi, Chaoxiaomi campaign for transgender rights.”

Here, Ying Xin shares her coming out story and reveals how she has helped transform the Beijing LGBT Center into the biggest queer community safe space in China.

When did you realise you were different, that your sexuality set you apart from your friends and peers?

I realised I was not heterosexual when I was eight. For a long time, I felt confused about my gender identity, I was told by my family that I couldn’t do lots of things in terms of my gender. I didn’t want to be a girl as I didn’t feel like being limited by my gender. I also feel attracted to people regardless of their gender. However, I couldn’t access any resources relevant to LGBTIQ [issues] until I entered university. When I was in middle school, when my peers were talking about their relationships or their dreams of family life in the future, I was in fear that I might die alone as the only non-heterosexual person on Earth.

When did you come out to your friends and family?

To friends, when I was in university. I found some online chatting groups on campus. I met some lesbian and gay friends there. At the beginning, my identity was bisexual, now it’s pansexual. I blocked myself off emotionally until I had a crush on a boy. My friend told me she saw a very cute boy and she thought that he was my type. Another friend introduced us and later I found that he was gay. It reminded me how, when I was a teenager, I also had feelings towards girls. This boy gave me [the] courage to be myself. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions after you come out. I come out to strangers, I will come out to a taxi driver if we talk during the ride. I’ve had an Uber driver ask me to stay when we arrived at my destination. “Oh miss, can you stay longer? I want to hear more stories,” he said. Homophobia or transphobia comes from ignorance. If we can provide more information about LGBTIQ issues, about diversity, people can change.

How did your parents react?

I came out to my mother when I was 24. At the beginning, she thought I was joking. She got so angry that she said: “I didn’t think I would have a daughter like this kind of freak.” Then she asked me, “Don’t you feel ashamed to do that kind of thing with girls?” I responded by asking her how elegant the sex between heterosexual couples was. Since she totally stigmatises sex, she couldn’t answer. Gradually, she changed her mind and has started supporting my work and [told] my father [for me] earlier this year, after one of my aunts asked me the classic question about when I was getting married. My mom said loudly and calmly in front all of my relatives: “She has a girlfriend, please don’t ask that question again. I won’t force her to get married.” I was shocked and my father didn’t say anything. But I am lucky, not only because my mother loves me, but also because I am quite independent.

What is life like for LGBTQ people in China, both every day in society and politically?

Generally speaking, being LGBTIQ in China is difficult. According to the survey we conducted with Peking University and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2016, only five per cent of LGBTIQ people in China are totally out in their daily life, only 5.1 per cent are out in their work place. More than 97 per cent of transgender people have suffered various forms of domestic violence. LGBTIQ people are three times more likely to suffer depression. More than 70 per cent of transgender people suffer anxiety while more than 60 per cent suffer with depression. Most transgender people cannot access gender-reassignment surgery and hormone treatment due to the lack of transgender-affirmative doctors. There is a huge gap between urban and rural China. It is easier to come out to friends in Beijing than in other cities. Politically, LGBTIQ people face censorship which makes us invisible — you don’t see any LGBTIQ figures in the cinema or mass media. We don’t have anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBTIQ rights. We don’t have marriage equality. However, some significant changes have happened. Homosexuality was declassified [as a] mental disorder in 2001, and homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997. You can change your gender marker on your ID card if you have undergone gender-reassignment surgery. In 2017, the civil law [was] revised, and notary offices permit guardianship for same-sex couples in some cities

What are the main challenges facing LGBTQ people?

From my perspective: lack of education on gender diversity, lack of legislation to protect our rights, censorship about LGBTIQ people. LGBTIQ [groups] cannot register as nongovernmental organisations, which is a big challenge in sourcing funding. And, finally, how the authorities always think LGBTIQ is a western ideological issue.

When was the Beijing LGBT Center founded?

Before there was no safe space for the LGBTIQ community, so five organisations set up this centre in 2008. [When the organisers decided to leave], the centre became independent. I was invited to join by one of the former board members. At the beginning I was the programme manager, and after a year I became the executive director. I restructured the organisation and initiated the de-pathologisation campaign, which mainly works on educating psychologists about anti-gay conversion therapy in China. I also initiated the first and largest national survey of LGBTIQ people in China, and the transgender support project. Along with my colleagues, the centre has achieved milestones on mental health, transgender rights, and business diversity.

What are your hopes for the future?

First, I hope more people can rise up and join the equal rights campaign. It’s a shame that the most resourceful LGBTIQ people are still silent on the LGBTIQ rights. But we are seeing more and more young people being brave and being out. I am not trying to force everyone to come out, people have different life stories. However, everyone can take a small action to make change. You can make a donation or be a volunteer. Second, I hope we can achieve more policy change on LGBTIQ rights. Third, I hope people realise that when we are talking about LGBTIQ rights, it is not only about sexuality. LGBTIQ rights is an intersectional issue. We have poor LGBTIQ people, ethnic groups, people with disabilities. We should embrace the real diversity in our culture and our heart. Diversity is not just a slogan, it’s about real people’s lives.

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