Women Hold Up Half the Sky
- a Chinese proverb
It is commonly believed by a number of lesbian and bisexual activists that the LBT movement in China was inspired by the Fourth World Conference on Women and its NGO Forum held in Beijing in 1995. It was the largest conference the United Nations had ever organized with the attendance of over 189 governments, 17000 participants including 6000 government delegates and more than 4000 representatives of NGOs, 4000 journalists, and included all the United Nations organizations. In addition, it was significant to women’s rights all over the world with the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) by 189 states. Central to the conference and the BPFA was the articulation that women’s rights are human rights, which became a slogan of feminist movements around the world.
Within this space, lesbian activists from all over the world, with OutRight Action International (at that time known as International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, IGLHRC) serving as the hub, worked to raise the visibility of lesbian issues and voice out discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In Beijing, OutRight released a document called ‘Unspoken Rules: Sexual Orientation and Women’s Human Rights’, which provided in-depth examples of the situation of lesbians from 31 countries. Using this document, lesbian activists highlighted that ‘lesbian rights are human rights’ and argued that the issues faced by lesbian women was a political issue. In addition, OutRight started a petition for the recognition of sexual rights that was signed by more than 200 diverse organizations worldwide from more than 30 countries expressing support for the recognition of sexual orientation or sexual rights. This was a remarkable feat in 1995 when support for women’s and sexual orientation rights were sparse on the international arena.
In the end, although government delegates agreed that discrimination against lesbians was wrong, the term sexual orientation was not included in the Beijing Platform for Action. Instead, a compromise was included in Paragraph 96, which stated that the “human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” This became a starting point for future lobbying for lesbian women’s rights at the United Nations. Undoubtedly, the visibility achieved in the NGO Forum, and the diverse alliances formed, placed sexual rights and lesbian issues on the global women’s rights movement stage.
Much like a butterfly effect, the activism by foreign lesbian activists during the conference brought into China concepts of ‘NGO-ization’, created learning opportunities for Chinese lesbian activists, and connected foreign lesbian activists with local lesbians. It inspired a generation of lesbians to consider strategic cooperation with the feminists working for the state apparatus and laid the groundwork for future engagements and collaborations.
Younger lesbian and bisexual activists went on to start groups like Sinner B in Guangzhou, in the South of China, to discuss feminism and the intersectionality of oppression faced by their community. They also debated the possibility of cooperating with the wider mainstream women’s movement, which represented diverse issues in different parts of China.
The awakening and speaking out
To understand the current burgeoning lesbian and bisexual movement in modern China, one has to look back into the past. Like many LGBT movements in different parts of Asia, Chinese Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activism followed similar patterns as HIV activism in the 1990s, propelled the HIV/AIDS prevention discourse forward, bringing gay men into the public sphere, and facilitating support from international and government agencies.
This was soon followed by the coming of the internet in 1998 which provided an effective way for LGBT individuals to find each other, offered a platform to discuss issues, and enabled communities online to flourish. Like many ostracized communities worldwide, technological advancement became a revolutionizing and centralizing force to the empowerment of the Chinese LGBT community. This online community lead to offline organizing and brought forth prominence of LGBT issues into the public domain.
With the plethora of available resources on HIV activism and with the coming of the internet, gay (male) groups blossomed and dominated the LGBT narratives during this period. Lesbians were given scant attention by authorities and the public, whose main concerns were the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Lesbians did not benefit from the wave of HIV/AIDS discourse and the prevention movement. Additionally, patriarchy withinin the LGBT movement in China, and more broadly, meant that lesbians had to fight to be heard.
Despite not having the kind of opportunities and resources available to them, and despite being marginalized, lesbian and bisexual women remained active in their search for identity. A rich oral archive of lesbian activists and allies documented by Beijing based LBT group Common Language (the organization is named Tongyu in Mandarin),, described the struggles and dreams of Chinese LBT women who grew in all the places people thought they never would.
Lesbian and bisexual women soon began referring to themselves as ‘lala,’ a unique cultural reference meaning lesbians. The origins of the word ‘lala’ for lesbian in China, was appropriated from the word ‘lazi’ for lesbian in Taiwan. ‘Lazi’ is the name of a lesbian character in a coming-of-age story in the Taiwanese novel, ‘Notes of a crocodile’ and was later introduced into China via Taiwan media and community interactions in the late 1990s.
By 2013, there was an explosion of lala groups, with organizations being formed in different parts of China. It took almost two decades, from 1995 until now, but lala groups have certainly found their voice in queer China.
This voice soon became a roar when Aibai, a gay men’s organization, argued that homosexuality is inborn and queer theory is irrelevant for the LGBT community in China. On 11 December 2011, an anonymous queer feminist collective started an account named ‘Pretty Fighter on Chinese microblogging website,Weibo, . The account had a defiant manifesto, which stated, “We are lalas. We are queer. We want to speak out!” Pretty Fighter reasoned that there is plurality and fluidity in sexual desire and that a biological-essentialist argument to homosexuality was reductive and discriminatory. In addition, they argued that by using queer discourse, the word “Lala” should be expanded to be “ku’er (queer) lala” to include lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people who had been silenced and marginalized in the gay men’s movement. Other issues were also raised by the movement including the problem of patriarchy, lack of representation, lack of gender perspective, and the male gender dominance in the LGBT community.
Out of this debate emerged the Chinese Lala Alliance, a regional network of about 50 ethnic Chinese LBT organizations in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Alliance released a statement on Common Language’s website, which stated the “importance of the independence of the lesbian movement in mainland China and called for ‘lalas’ to get rid of their passive position as an appendage to the gay movement, and speak out for themselves.”
This declarative statement of the Chinese Lala Alliance became one of the pivotal moments of LBT history and highlighted the weakness of having a movement that lacked critique of gender perspective and sexism. This development sharpened the ideological divide between gay men and lesbians, bisexual women, transgender people in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
This article only offers a snapshot of some of the issues faced by an emerging LGBT community in China. From awakening to action, the LGBT movement in mainland China has seized every opportunity available to them while facing a restrictive environment living under the governance of a communist state. Like many social movements in the world, it is inevitable that ideological differences exist within the LGBT community. What matters is how the LGBT community in China negotiates their way forward to ensuring the blossoming of a truly inclusive and diverse rainbow community.
Published on June 27, 2017 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization