Web Reshapes the Lives of China’s LGBT Community

Rainbow flags fluttered around the world for Pride Month in June. One friend in New York shared a picture of the top of the Empire State Building lit in rainbow colors on WeChat Moments and tagged it “Happy and Proud.”

Being LGBT in China: Open Secrets

Increasing openness and free expression on social platforms have brought China’s LGBT community an unprecedented visibility. But is that exposure a sign that more LGBT people are coming out of the closet?

Nearly 48 percent of China’s LGBT people refuse to tell their family about their sexual orientation, according to “Being LGBTI in China – A National Survey on Social Attitudes Toward Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression (SOGIE),” a UNDP report in May 2016. In the workplace, as many as three in four people choose to remain in the closet.

“I’m transgender, and I love to talk openly about it. People might be willing to tell me their personal stories, but it doesn’t mean that they are willing to share them with everyone,” says Hetao, the transgender project officer at Beijing LGBT Center, “They usually group their contacts on WeChat so teachers, parents and clients don’t see their intimate photos with boyfriends or girlfriends. Most people are frank within the community, but they stay under the radar to outsiders.”

Risks are there no matter how the environment changes. Choosing to “partially” come out of the closet not only satisfies their needs for gender expression, but also avoids unfair treatment due to underlying uncertainties. The courageous acts of the few can encourage those who are still inside the “closet” to come out.

Chen, a former writer for the Financial Times who now works at Beijing’s famous gay bar Destination, mentioned in a recent article that when he shared a story about his boyfriend, Jiang, to a high school WeChat group, a man who sat behind him in high school, replied “gross”.

That high school classmate lives in a small town in southern Zhejiang, where he is unlikely to encounter openly LGBT people. The response could be different if Chen shared the same information to a WeChat group based in a big city.

With the prosperity of the We-media era, many LGBT-related WeChat accounts have surfaced. “Three Men Under One Roof” posts original content about a typical Chinese gay family, Tommy and Joe – two loving fathers – and their son Jack. The comments below each article are filled with admiration.

Such LGBT-related We-media have accumulated large followings by sharing real-life experiences rather than capitalizing on their sexual orientation. People are no longer easily manipulated by titillating media reports with headlines like, “He Is a Woman Trapped in a Man’s Body.”

Growing Community: From Scrawls to Apps

In the controversial Crystal Boys by Taiwanese writer Pai Hsien-yung, young homosexual boys met around a lotus pond at the New Park in Taiwan back in the 1970s. Their protector couldn’t bear to see them wander the streets after a seige by local police. He decides to open a bar where they can work and find shelter.

Chinese TV series based on the novel, Crystal Boys

The boys are like exiled birds who have finally found a nest.

Hetao said that 20 years ago, when the Internet was less accessible, gays and lesbians would write their numbers on the walls of public toilets to seek mates.

According to the lesbian documentary “We Are Here,” gay and lesbian activists often met in the artist village in Yuanmingyuan. They promoted the group by sending letters and giving out self-made magazines in the parks. “At that time, we would hit the street and look for girls with short hair who might be a lesbian. We would grab them and try to pull them into our group,” said the director Shitou, a lesbian artist, at its screening on June 22.

lesbian documentary “We Are Here”

Passion for Connection

Though their past means may appear primitive, China’s LGTB community has always had a passion for connection.

In 2000, Geng Le quit his job as a policeman and founded the gay website Danlan.com. The website has grown to serve more than 20 million users. During the same period, various online communities, QQ chat rooms and gay forums became available. LGBT people began to write about their feelings and personal stories online.

Geng Le, founder of Danlan.com

Beijing LGBT Center was founded in 2008. In the early days, gays and lesbians used to gather at bars in the Sanlitun area. Later, the activists decided to form an organization ostensibly for community service and other activities. They were desperate for more influence outside the community, and the media would play an essential role.

Duan, who is in charge of the center’s media platforms, says, “We post LGBT-related information through WeChat, Weibo and Facebook, and we’ve also tried doing live broadcasts on video websites, as well as online micro courses and podcasts. You know, different channels for different people.” The center also works with LGBT dating apps such as Blued and Aloha to organize offline events, such as film screenings, English corners, support sessions and parties.

advocacy event by Beijing LGBT Center

At present, the official Weibo account of the Center has more than 78,000 fans and its WeChat official account has more than 20,000.

In terms of LGBT dating apps, Blued is the most popular gay dating app in China. “When you open the app, it’s amazing to see there are more than 1,000 people nearby,” says Hetao. The so-called minority group seems less small.

Blued, one of the most popular gay dating apps in China

But the prevalence of gay dating apps has had some negative effects, such as fostering a preference for stereotyped looks and increased risks of HIV infection through unsafe sex.

Hetao says no social or dating app caters to China’s transgenders. Transgenders usually just join a transgender QQ group or use gay dating softwares such as Blued or ZANK. Some use heterosexual dating apps. Many gays accuse them of being too “womanly,” while straight men say they are not womanly enough.

The American gay dating app Grindr may excel on this point. “Making Grindr even more trans-inclusive has been an ongoing process,” said Peter Sloterdyk, Grindr’s VP of marketing, “We introduced the ‘trans’ tribe but later learned that wasn’t enough. Recently, at our annual Pride party, Slumbr, a number of trans individuals shared feedback with us about their experiences on Grindr — that’s what sparked this change. We wanted to get it right, and the only way to do so is through insight from the global trans community, feedback, and buy-in from global trans leaders.” (So Grindr has opened its doors to all-what does it mean? By Jake Hall on December 7, 2017)

Like many tech products, Grindr aims to break traditional barriers and serve minorities in a more diverse and inclusive way.

QQ Hotline: Virtual Sounding Board

The 2017 National Survey of the Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Population in China published by Beijing LGBT Center and the sociology department of Peking University found that 61.5 percent of respondents suffered from depression: 32.1 percent had a high risk of depression and 29.4 percent tended to feel depressed.

press conference for the 2017 National Survey of the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Population in China

Mental health is a critical issue for the community.

I remember in high school, when I listened to call-in shows on the radio, a lesbian phoned in to talk about her affections for another girl. The host indicated absent-mindedly that she might be mistaking an intimate friendship for love. Outsiders always seek to correct or rectify rather than show serious understanding.

Many organizations across the country provide counseling services to the community through apps and mini-programs. In addition to the Beijing LGBT Center, the Shanghai Qing’ai Health Center also offers its “Green Voice” counseling service.

“The hotline is more about companionship, like a joint confrontation against their issues and fears. We offer written or spoken suggestion on QQ and offer face-to-face conversations,” says Hetao. He also mentioned that the counseling service of Beijing LGBT Center is available for appointment using its WeChat official account or the official website.

Since it opened at the end of 2015, the center’s transgender hotline has received 1,000 visitors in total and 306 calls in 2017 alone. The callers’ problems have gradually shifted from personal gender identity to relationships with partners or families.

One of the visitors in May was a severely depressed 17-year-old male-to-female transgender in Beijing who was grounded in advance of the college entrance exams. His psychological status and gender awareness were two separate issues that needed to be dealt with carefully. The operator recommended a doctor specialized in gender-related issues and added his parents to a transgender parent group.

The hotline is like a virtual sounding board. Users can step back to examine their problems rationally and avoid becoming trapped in denial or depression, and it can alleviate pressure felt by their families.

After the interview, it is time for a social worker gathering. The volunteers repeatedly remind me not to make too much noise when leaving. Regardless of how the online community may be flourishing, face-to-face conversation is irreplaceable.

“It’s a very private moment for them and they don’t want to be disturbed,” says one of the volunteers.