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LGBTIQ Activists Are the Unsung Heroes on the Frontlines of China’s Fight Against COVID-19





Jean Chong
Published Date

Wuhan, the epicenter of courage. On January 23, the Chinese government ordered the lockdown of Wuhan and various cities in Hubei, a landlocked province in Central China. Within hours, travel restrictions were imposed in all 15 cities in Hubei, affecting about 57 million people. Wuhan, the largest and most populous city in Central China, home to 11 million people, ground to a halt.

“We were terrified when the government shut down Wuhan. There were stories of people dying from a mysterious disease and the bustling city went silent. Suddenly all of our work for the LGBT community had to stop, and then we started receiving calls for help from LGBT people all over the city,” said Haojie from Wuhan LGBT Center.”

It was then that Chinese citizens realized the severity of the problem, having been earlier assured by the Chinese authorities that the virus was not transmittable from human to human. Searching for answers online soon proved futile as the censors worked overtime to take down any information on the virus in an effort to control the narrative.

Seeing no way to carry out their activities, the Wuhan LGBT Center planned to shut its doors and send its staff home. But before they could, calls for help started flooding in from LGBT persons living with HIV in Wuhan.

The quarantine made it nearly impossible for everyone in the city to leave their homes. Therefore, thousands of LGBT persons living with HIV could not go to the hospitals for the medication they needed without stating the reason why they had to travel. Afraid of the stigma and discrimination that comes with being HIV positive, they were cautious about revealing their status to community officials to ask for permission to travel or to arrange for medication to be delivered. Many would rather risk not taking their medication than have their family or community find out about their status. Desperate for a solution, thousands started calling the Wuhan LGBT Center. 

The Wuhan LGBT Center sprang into action. 22 volunteers came forward to run different teams with jobs such as taking calls, collecting medicine, and delivering the medicine. The closest place to pick up the HIV medication is 13 miles away from the center at Jinyintan Hospital, the magma chamber of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Steeling their resolve, the team scrambled to get hazmat suits and protective gear in preparation for the daily commute and waiting rooms packed with infectious Coronavirus patients seeking help. 

Between January 26 until the end of lock down on April 8, the Center delivered medicine to an average of 200 persons daily. An impressive tally emerged counting an estimated 14,000 persons receiving 130,000 bottles of medicine over the entire 74 days of lockdown.

When asked about the impetus of the action, Haojie said, “We had to help our own community, because we are all we had.”

We are a part of the community and the community is a part of us 

“We don’t live in a silo, we are a part of the larger community and nation. Our lives are intertwined, even though we are minorities,” said Stephanie from the bisexual group r&B based in Guangzhou.

As the severity of the coronavirus swept across the nation, Chinese citizens were simultaneously making the journey back to their hometowns to celebrate Chinese New Year with families and friends. Often deemed the largest human migration, three billion trips by road, air, and rail were made across the country to observe the start of the Year of the Rat on January 24, 2020.  

In light of the spreading virus, this migration posed huge risks. Worried and eager for news, people flooded social media on their mobile phones to absorb information before it got deleted by state censors. In the meantime, LGBT activists rallied together to protect not only the LGBT community, but the broader community everyone is part of. 

On the morning of January 25, LGBT activists from the Beijing LGBT Center, the Changsha marriage equality campaign, the r&B bisexual group, and the Guangzhou LGBTI Rights Advocacy China, among others, gathered in chat groups to discuss the unfolding crisis. They decided that in order to reduce the possibility of the coronavirus traveling to all parts of China, they had to stop the travel expected after the end of the public holiday on January 30. Addressing the need for more hands on deck, by 11 A.M., the group had called and gathered 100 activists through their networks. By 1 P.M., the group came up with a plan and organized themselves into five different task forces.

The plan was to start a 48-hour campaign through social media platforms such as Wechat, Weibo, and Douban, and mobilize 100,000 persons to lobby for the extension of the public holiday so that workers can delay their return to work. A how-to toolkit was designed and written for the campaign which consisted of two Wechat articles on why the delay is necessary and three campaign posters. Netizens on social media reacted quickly when the WeChat articles were released, garnering a readership of 500,000 collectively and directing readers to provide feedback on the coronavirus website provided by congress.

Xinying, one of the activists, said, “We knew that the only way to extend the holidays was to get [the] central government to issue an order. In Chinese society, this is the only and quickest way to get businesses and government officials to toe the line.”

At the crack of dawn on January 26, congress released a statement that public holidays would be extended until February 2. Elated that they were being heard, activists wondered if a three-day delay would solve the problem. Determined to keep pushing, they released a second round of articles advocating for a further extension of the public holidays. By this time, the entire country was rocked by images leaked from Wuhan on the condition of hospitals and the rising number of deaths. Sensing the urgency of the matter, more people started taking action by joining the campaign and writing to congress. On January 28, articles by the group were read two million times. The campaign generated a debate on worker rights and garnered traction for a mass movement, pushing the government to do more. By January 31, the central government said that the public holiday will again be extended until February 10, and that companies must comply.

“We have to do something as LGBT activists. We’ve gained a lot of experience navigating the system. We knew what to do and how to mobilize, and it was time to use it. After all, we are a part of the community and the community is a part of us. We have to work together and make sure that we all survive,” Stephanie said.

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