"I feel regretful but not surprised" was my response regarding the news of the closure of the Beijing LGBT Center during a recent media interview. Over the years, the Chinese government has been suppressing human rights, labor, and women's rights activists. In the past couple of years, they have also started to become "concerned" with LGBTIQ organizations. "Even after the usual "drinking tea sessions" during which police demanded that these activists delete their public Weibo accounts and cease organizing activities. In fact, the Beijing LGBT Center had already concealed the word “Tongzhi (LGBT)” within its Chinese name by abbreviating it in 2021, hoping to minimize its association with sexual minorities and become known as "Northern Common Culture." However, despite their efforts, they could not withstand the pressure and were forced to shut down.
The closure of the Beijing LGBT Center is understandable, and even I was surprised by their ability and capacity to endure for so long. If a nonprofit organization is unable to hold events, raise funds and promote its ideas, the people who work there will constantly live in fear of being summoned by the police for "drinking tea sessions." They can be interrogated about their personal history, asked to provide urine samples, and have their phones or computers inspected. Even if they leave the country, they may still receive sudden calls on their local phone numbers from someone "concerned" about their family back home, reminding them to be cautious in their words and actions. Despite facing such difficulties, Chinese LGBTQ activists have persevered and been able to provide community support and services, doing their utmost to make a difference until this recent closure.
Among the various accusations in China, collusion with "foreign forces" has become the biggest label. In recent years, with the competition between the camps of authority and democracy on the international stage, the Chinese LGBTQ community has become the primary target. Previously, the Chinese government's control methods often involved simple "drinking tea sessions" with verbal warnings. However, in the past two years, there has been a strong emphasis on questioning local activists about their relationship with the United States and Five Eyes and whether they have received assistance or instructions from so-called "foreign forces."
There have also been increasingly stringent demands, such as the prohibition of organizing events, the closure of social media accounts, and even the banning of regular dating and social activities. Public space for the LGBTQ community has become virtually non-existent.
However, ceasing the specific operations of physical spaces can be seen as a turning point in the current policy-tightening reality in China. When community activities are no longer conducted openly, and there are no easily monitored physical locations, how can the Chinese government continue its surveillance? The Mandarin-speaking LGBTQ community often uses nicknames extensively to conceal their sexual identities and avoid coming out. Without spaces and visible members, will there be no subjects left to control? This is a point that should be continuously monitored.
Also, from a global perspective of the LGBTIQ movement, it is important to discuss how we can collectively face accusations of being influenced by "foreign forces" and reflect on how the global movement can provide ongoing support to human rights activists in such authoritarian countries.
It is true that LGBTIQ activists in China and many other countries collectively face severe mental and physical pressures. They often have nowhere to turn for safety or to express their concerns, not only in China but also in other countries where LGBTIQ individuals face even more difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations. When we say, "Celebrate who we are!” and “Stand up proudly as LGBTIQ!" this coming June, do we unintentionally push our fellow LGBTIQ brothers and sisters from these countries even deeper into the closet?
It is crucial for us to remember that LGBTIQ pride is not only about celebrating progress and achievements in more accepting societies but also about recognizing and supporting LGBTIQ individuals who face persecution and oppression. As a global community, we must strive to create a safe and inclusive space where all LGBTIQ individuals, regardless of their geographical location, can find support, solidarity, and empowerment. Our pride celebrations should also serve as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to ensure the rights and well-being of all LGBTIQ individuals worldwide.
Through challenges and successes, the fight for LGBTIQ human rights in Asia pushes forward. Learn more from our Director for Asia Programs, Jennifer Lu, about the state of LGBTIQ rights in the region.