This article represents an interesting change from CDB’s normal fare. It has to do less with organizations providing services to a disadvantaged population or addressing environmental problems, and more to do with groups organizing around expression and identity, what we might call “identity politics” in the West. It is also unusual in that it is written by a participant in the movement. It shows that independent organizing in China is beginning to emerge around issues of expression and identity. In contrast to the sensitive issues of ethnic and religious identity, lesbian and gay organizing in China appears to be mildly tolerated by the government. This article shows how far lesbian organizing has come in China over a short period of time, with lesbians coming together in physical and virtual venues, holding salons and conferences and forming networks with domestic and international LGBT groups.
Female homosexuals — also known as “female comrades1 ” and in English as “lesbians” — have adopted the self professed name, “la la”. This term refers to female-to-female sexual desire and activity. Although this sexual desire and activity has existed since China’s ancient times, up until the twentieth century the majority of Chinese people have either never heard of this sexual phenomenon or have never seen a lesbian in public. In 1995, when the Fourth Women’s World Conference was held in Beijing, a Chinese volunteer was on duty in the China’s Lesbian representative tent when a foreign representative asked her whether she knew a Chinese lesbian. She replied: “This phenomenon does not exist in China.”
During the mid-1990s, groups that formed using the term “homosexual” were carefully watched and eventually banned. As a result, group leaders were forced to deal with these limitations and think up alternative ways to organize and unite the gay community. They wanted to create an encouraging environment that allowed everyone to feel comfortable in acknowledging their identity. At that time, several lesbians living in Beijing had already begun to arrange occasional meetings. In 1994, Susie, a bisexual English woman, began organizing parties at her house, inviting both her foreign and Chinese gay friends. In addition, Susie began to organize bar gatherings with gay activist, Wu Chunsheng.
When Shitou, a female artist, lived at the old Summer Palace in an artist village, a girl often came to visit her. Their relationship developed and eventually they moved in together. They never were more than friends, but Shitou felt as if the feeling between them was different from anything she had experienced before.
After the artist village was disbanded, Shitou met Susie through one of her organized events. The first time Shitou participated in one of these events, she was surprised at the sight of all the beautiful people in the room and was not quite sure how this could happen. After becoming a regular at Susie’s gatherings, Shitou slowly became aware that this was a gay community. It made her think back to the friendship she shared with the girl in the old Summer Palace, a time in which she came across a girl that she liked. Shitou began to re-explore herself in a different way.
When everyone at the party would gather together they would explore other possibilities. Shitou decided to take part in a feminist group that encouraged lesbians to bring out their voice in feminist discussions. Susie, on the other hand, collaborated with an activist, He Xiaopei and looked for a bar to hold get-togethers. After a one-time celebratory event in June of 1996 to remember the Stonewall Event2, “Half and Half” became Beijing’s first gay bar.
Xiaopei believes that the emergence of gay bars as venues to gather has been especially important in the organization of the gay community- “As long as everyone comes out together, we will all be able to become visible living beings in our community. We must work together to become a group with a goal. ”
In addition to gay bars, gay hotlines have also emerged. Private parties, bars, hotlines, and meetings have encouraged more lesbians to come out. Through these social networks, lesbians are able to get to know one another, and self-proclaim their identity, becoming participants in a movement.
The first lesbian group was established in 1995 using the name “Female Comrade.” The group organized activities every week, including parties, dances, outings, and discussions.
In 1998, a national conference was held at a temple in the western suburbs of Beijing by homosexuals from around the world. In October of the same year, more than 30 lesbians gathered together at an underground bar in Haidian District for a lesbian conference. They shared their life experiences with one another, and discussed the logistics of opening a hotline, creating a national network, and publishing journals geared toward the lesbian community. Soon after, the “Beijing Sister” group was formed. They published their first lesbian publication, “Sky” and opened the first lesbian hotline.
Later, due to conflicts within the group, their “Beijing Lesbian Culture Festival” was canceled, and in 2001, the Beijing Sister group broke up.
Building a Network
In the late 90’s, the internet became an important medium to help gays connect and create a network. They began with chat rooms, websites, and moved on to discussion forums. The young gay community was especially proactive, creating a large cyber network community.
At the end of 1999,Dongdong, a native of Suzhou, began learning how to create web pages. Among her many web pages, was one in which she recorded her relationship with her girlfriend. She posted poems, conversations and descriptions related to the feelings of love. Over time, she found that the site was her most popular webpage. Someone commented saying that they had also experienced something similar to what Dongdong was going through when she was younger, thereby encouraging Dongdong to continue with her work.
In 2000, Dongdong’s page became an official website called, “Late Autumn Cabin.” “Late Autumn Cabin” quickly became one of the first most popular lesbian websites. Webmaster, Dongdong’s taste for literature, allowed her to organically gather young lesbians involved in the literary scene.
At about the same time, toward the end of 1999, Xiangqi, a native of a small town in Southern China met her future girlfriend in a QQ chat room. Xiangqi wanted to be closer to her girlfriend, so she resigned from her job and the two started their life together. Inspired by her friends, Xiangqi started a website called “Us Two,” telling the story of her and her girlfriend. The growth of website followers encouraged Xiangqi to open a larger forum-based website.
In 2002, Xiangqi transformed her personal webpage into a discussion forum, called “A Place of Blooming Flowers.” “A Place of Blooming Flowers” and “Late Autumn Cabin,” became two of the most popular lesbian websites in China during the first decade of the 21st century.
Sam and Gogo met through the “Late Autumn Cabin” forum. At the time, both had girlfriends and were living under the constraints of feeling as if they had no future. The internet and bars were the main meeting places for lesbians, many of whom were under psychological pressure, knowing that their girlfriends would one day want to get married. The mindset that one does not have a future is prevalent in both reality and virtual communities. Girls who live by the principle of carpe diem are unable to build a new life for themselves3.
Sam and Gogo began to talk about what they could do besides drinking, eating and singing. Gogo, a graphic designer, said she wanted to start a lesbian magazine that was young and trendy. She wanted it to be different from the current, darker and more depressing writing. Sam agreed and encouraged her to do it.
In December 2005, the lesbian magazine, “Les +” was published. It gave a new generation of young people a chance to voice their opinions.
A Community Rooted from the Bottom-Up
The cancellation of the 2001 Beijing Lesbian Cultural Festival and the breakup of the Beijing Sister group could have led to the silencing of China’s lesbian movement. But with the subsequent rise of the internet and the emergence of lesbian voices, new lesbian organizations emerged.
In 2004, Xian, a native Beijinger returned to Beijing from the United States. While studying in the U.S, Xian became acquainted with several gay activists, and was moved by their cause. She believed that the gay movement opened up new possibilities in her life. After her return to China in 2004, Xian began to explore Beijing’s lesbian community. She first consulted a few senior members of the gay movement about both the gay and lesbian movement in Beiing. Xian found they did not have any experience to offer about the lesbian movement. In addition, the lesbian community was not a cohesive one and lacked money. The senior members gave Xian a warning: do not form a community, it is too hard.
Unlike previous participants in the lesbian movement, Xian had experiences in NGO work and had studied the theory behind movements like this. Xian applied these theories to the gay movement and formed a sound strategy. In her view, there were two ways to conduct a movement: from the bottom up, to start from the masses to form a community or from top down, to work with lawmakers and experts, working to change policies. Xian chose the former because “social movements are not decided by an individual or small number of people with power. The charm in social movements is that everyone has the responsibility to work toward social progress. In fact, this way of thinking is precisely the idea behind popular grassroots movements. I never felt compelled to become a leader of a movement. My goal is to inspire others to get involved in the movement. ”
Xian went to bars, contacted community activists, and became acquainted with people who were active in the community. In 2004, Xian and a member of a lesbian organization, Anke collaborated and came up with “La La Salon Beijing,” a weekly discussion meeting held on the weekends at a public venue. Slowly, more people were willing to publicly acknowledge their identity, and expressed interest in participating in gay-related activities.
In 2005, Xian convened a number of volunteers to set up a working group. In addition to founding the Beijing chapter, Xian also began establishing contacts outside of Beijing. She eventually founded a national network. Among the active lesbian organizations, some were associated with gay organizations, while others were started by lesbians themselves. Most lesbian organizations depended on bars and websites to survive. In the summer of 2005, local group leaders and activists held a meeting in Beijing. Nearly 40 people participated, 20 of them from abroad.
At that time, Xiangqi, the founder of the “Us Two” and “A Place for Blooming Flowers” websites, who lived in Shanghai, also attended the meeting. After she returned to Shanghai, what started as a small discussion group with a few friends became a working group on female love. She said: “At the time, I did not know what to do. I just wanted to gather everyone together, and later open a salon, open a hotline, have gatherings, travel.” Salons were the group’s most important type of activity, discussion topics included video and legal issues discussions. They met on an average of once a month. Over time, the female love group became Shanghai’s first and most important lesbian working group.
In 2005, in Chengdu, a lesbian named Yushi and several other volunteers established Chengdu’s LES Love Working Group. At that time, Yushi had her own bar named “Moon Love Flower.” In 2004, inspired by her girlfriend being forced into marriage by her family, Yushi wrote a post on the online forum, Tianyu, called “Yushi Do Not Cry.” Soon after, Yushi’s bar became famous. The next year, Phoenix’s television program, “Date with Lu Yu” wanted to make a lesbian broadcast, and found Yushi. After an intense ideological struggle, Yushi decided to tell their story. After the program aired in February 2006, Yushi’s bar became one of the few openly gay lesbians in China.
The Moon Love Flower bar was not as easy to maintain as Yushi had imagined. The environment was more complex and required better management skills. At the same time, Yushi thought, Is it possible that my ideal life is this bar? She slowly came to realize that she wanted to found an organization. The bar was just a basis for establishing a living to support herself, and also a possible communication platform.
After the establishment of the Chengdu LES Love working group, Yushi and others began to organize salons and parties, eventually becoming Sichuan’s most important lesbian organization.
La La Camp – The Lesbian Movement’s Whampoa Military Academy
Beginning in 2003, with the Chinese government’s focus on the issue of AIDS prevention, and the entry of AIDS prevention funding from international organizations, gay volunteer groups were also being established throughout China. Most of these groups received the support of the local Center for Disease Control4. The CDC’s backing allowed these groups to legally carry out AIDS prevention and publicity work, and also to receive financial support. However, many groups were limited to AIDS work and few were able to do much in the area of gay rights, culture, discrimination and community building work, which led to frequent disagreements on the scope of the project and use of resources.
In many areas, lesbian organizations existed alongside gay organizations, but had a difficult time surviving. Independent lesbian organizations faced the challenges of limited finances and personnel. On the other hand, without large amounts of funding and the support of the government, lesbian organizations were able to be independent and self-reliant.
At the 2005 Beijing conference, Xian invited Taiwan and Hong Kong senior gay activist, Wang Ping/Connie. They both found that Taiwan and Hong Kong’s LGBT movement was far ahead of the mainland. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, they were already working to change the law and establish a dialogue with the government. Inter-regional cooperation is necessary and important in shaping a movement’s direction, and in 2006, Xian and Wang Ping decided that they would begin a training camp for lesbian volunteers the following summer, providing the Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Chinese lesbian volunteer community with comprehensive training.
In July 2007, the Chinese lesbian movement reached a milestone: the first lesbian camp in Zhuhai began.
Over four days and three nights, the camp’s participants discussed each of their region’s experiences in the movement, along with other topics such as: gay identity, family experiences, the intersex spectrum and the gay movement, the function of art and organizations, media skills, law, campaign methods, human resource strategies for regional connection, regional policies and many other topics. Every afternoon, at the end of classes, there would be 15 minutes left for open discussion. They wanted to give those who wanted to turn their personal story into a case study the opportunity to receive funding. Each person was required to explain their story in a few short statements.
The volunteers that participated in the camp were organizers of the gay rights movement in their region. Volunteers from each region could share the problems and experiences from their region. It was the first time organizers from mainland China experienced an environment with such diverse sexual orientations.
Xu Kuan and Joanne, a transsexual from Taiwan stood in front of the group and told their stories, proving that it is important for things that exist to be heard and seen. This reminded lesbians that they should maintain more of an open attitude towards others and with oneself. There are subtle complexities in the gay rights movement, for example the individuals involved, especially those who were from a heterosexual background, that were outside their comfort zone. A senior lesbian volunteer, Xiaopei said: “The participants at the Zhuhai lesbian camp were so passionate in moving the gay movement forward I became “homophobic”; now I want to do work that involves transgender groups in order to diversify the community.”
After the lesbian camp came to a close, a special closing ceremony was held. Certificates were presented by former participants in the camp, almost as if they were passing the torch of the gay rights movement.
When Les+ ’s editor, Sam received her certificate, she said “I hope that this conference will be just like the First Congress of the Communist Party of China: a starting point for something great”. There was an uproar of laughter. The conference was able to have a huge affect on the movement itself. Something as small as this that can have a huge affect down the road.
In the same year, small lesbian organizations were also established in Nanning, Guangxi, Guangzhou, Guangdong, and Anshan, Liaoning.
Following the establishment of the Zhuhai LaLa lesbian camp, in 2008 and 2009, the LaLa volunteer training camp continued on, inspiring people in the community. Volunteers continued to support the development of small organizations.
“No man is an island. Everyone is like a small piece of earth, connected to the land.” The passing down of certificates was symbolic. The camp was similar to a networking activity allowing lesbian volunteers from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and North America to connect with one another, extending the ever growing network.
“A Little Piece of Earth Can Form a Continent”
A Zhuhai camper, Xiao S. from Nanning, Guangxi, began to like girls in her adolescent years. She enjoyed the limelight. During the flag-raising ceremony at school, others sang the national anthem quietly, while Xiao S sang out loud, belting out the lyrics in a loudly manner. Some believed that she had the personality of an activist.
In 2007, after news of Camp Zhuhai was released, Xiao S. at the time did not have any organizational experience, but she wrote to the organizing committee saying that she was a student who had no work experience, but was very interested in getting involved. She said if the committee did not have any funding to help her, she would be willing to use her own money to go to Camp Zhuhai.
Xian said Xiao S’s letter left a deep impression on her. Although it was childish on the surface, it was also very ambitious, so the organizing committee funded Xiao S. to go to Zhuhai. Xiao S. recalled that time in her life saying, “every day I was really excited. I was interested in taking every course. I remember Wang Ping, a native of Taiwan, who made a short travel video. A screenshot showcased the raising of a rainbow flag in front of a government building. It was so inspiring that I was in tears. ”
After returning to Nanning, Xiao S. formed her own group called the Guangxi Lace (a lesbian homonym) Association. Shw wanted to form a network, connecting all Guangxi lesbians.
She was active on QQ and posted on BBS. She thought that Les + was very useful, so she decided to make her own electronic magazine called the “Good Life,” in which the character “好” or ‘good’ was broken up into two characters ‘女’ and ‘子’, meaning woman. In January, the electronic magazine was used as a media outlet, contacting and gathering together all lesbians in Nanning. The e-magazine layout was meticulous. There was different background music, personal stories, knowledge on sex, and also art included on each page. The majority of the e-magazine content was less about the lesbian community, and more on the topic of leisure and young people.
“First there is imitation, then there is innovation.” This was Xiao S’s work ethic. Over the past few years, she has grown into a confident organizer. Inspired by events in Beijing, Guangxi Lace Association organized their own events including: basketball tournaments, obstacle courses and other sports activities. On the same day as international anti-terrorism day, the association called upon Guangxi lesbians to protest against China’s policy forbidding homosexuals to donate blood on the day of blood donations. In 2010, on the same day of anti-terrorism, the Lace organization organized a cycling activity to promote pride throughout the university. Xiao S. said that once there were more than a dozen people who participated in the activities and over 30 people who came to the dinner. It appeared that meals were most popular, so they organized a “sushi day” once every month. Everyone would gather in the activity room, cook, eat, and talk. It became known as the “Eating Association. ”
At the end of 2009, I followed the Chinese queer tour group to Nanning to meet Xiao S. I asked her: “Compared to 2007, do you think you have changed?” She replied, “I think I’ve grown up.” I asked, “Is your passion still there?” She said, “Of course, this is something that will never change. ”
In recent years, lesbian groups have displayed a different development trend, but are growing quickly.
In Beijing, Common Language has developed into a national organization, and supports the growth of small groups in different localities. Common Language has changed strategies, moving from community development to more public education, and even policy advocacy. Les + magazine has been released in more than 20 provinces, more than 50 cities, and has organized many influential queer cultural activities. In 2010, the lesbian play, “Huan You She” was established as the symbol of the “vanguard of queer culture.” Lesbian Beijing native, Sharon still continues to develop the community’s building features. Common Language, Aibai network, Les + and other organizations founded the LGBT Center in Beijing. This was a new platform and also a new co-development model for collaboration between gay and lesbian organizations.
Shanghai Female Love Working Group published the “Speaking of their love— Shanghai’s lesbian oral history.” The book led to the enthusiasm for work in gathering the lesbian oral history for a particular region. In the southwest, the Chengdu’s Love Working Group was able to join the Yunnan lesbian community. In Guizhou, Qian Yan Working Group held their first older lesbian oral story telling camp in Kunming.
Throughout China, the lesbian movement is on the rise. There are still many things that need to be done, and things that can be done. Hong Kong and Taiwanese volunteers expressed that their experience of hardship, has not yet been experienced in the mainland. They surmise it is because the mainland has just started their movement, and are still passionate and excited. Xian and Hong Kong classmate, You Jing said, “You can not always talk about hardship. You should tell us that there is a happy ending!” You Jing said: “This is a happy ending. Our friends in the mainland will bring us the happy ending that we’ve been waiting for. “
Editor’s Note: Chinese gay and lesbians often refer to themselves using the revolutionary term for comrade (tongzhi). ↩
Editor’s Note: The “Stonewall Riots” occurred in June of 1969 in the United States. It was a symbolic event in the history of gay rights, inspiring gay community activism in the U.S, and other parts of the world. ↩
Editor’s Note: The pressure for gays and lesbians to enter into heterosexual marriages is strong in China where parents want their children to carry on the family line. ↩
Editor’s Note: The Chinese Center of Disease Control was significantly strengthened after the SARS crisis of 2003. At the local level, the CDC works closely with the local Health Bureau. ↩