Chinese LGBT in the UK:

marginalisation and intersection

Originally published in Chinese on the Chinese social media account StoryUK  

 

Britain, with its rainbow flag flying, has attracted a large number of Chinese students who in part want some freedom to explore their gender and sexual identities. However, Chinese LGBT students are often marked off by their very difference as Chinese and therefore marginalised even within such communities. It was in facing this intersectant identity that Qiu Bai and E. Huang began to establish their own LGBT community in the UK.

 

The cultural background that cannot be shifted with geographical location 

 

It was not until she was about to apply for a visa that Qiu Bai told her parents that she was going abroad to study. She was afraid of losing the support of her family. In 2015, she was a litigant in the first case in China to lodge a suit against the ministry of education over school textbooks describing homosexuality as a mental disorder. 

 

During the process, when she tried to convince textbook writers and publishers of the inaccuracy of the textbook's depiction of homosexuality as a psychosexual disorder, she was invariably challenged, "You, an undergrad, told me that there were some mistakes in my textbooks. Are you an expert in psychology or medicine? Why should I listen to you?"

 

It was hard for her to counter such arguments as indeed she did not possess such specialist knowledge through which such experts justified their authority. She needed more knowledge to arm herself against such writers. In China, there was no academic department devoted to gender studies, but in Britain, gender studies had become a well-established discipline. Therefore, she went to the London School of Economics and Political Science to do graduate studies in Gender, Media and Culture.

 

Taiwanese Huang came to Britain for a similar reason. Before studying abroad, she had six years of involvement with LGBT movements in Taiwan and had worked as a volunteer and event organiser in several NGOs. However, her family knew nothing about this and had always considered what they identified as homosexuality to be abnormal. Given such circumstances, she "fled" to Manchester in 2015. In 2018, she applied for a Master's degree in International Social Change and Policy at the University of Sheffield.

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Facebook event page: Support LGBT+ rights referendums in Taiwan! Photoshoot (20th Nov 2018)

However, even in the seemingly more free environment of the west, the influence of their own upbringing remained enormous.

 

After coming to the LSE, Qiu Bai became stuck academically. In her previous involvement with the issues central to her experience, she did not systematically study gender theories, and the LSE course’s curriculum was highly academic and theoretical. A lot of literature that would even be hard to understand in Chinese she now needed to read in English, which made the pressure even greater. In some essays, she cited many cases of others for analysis, but her supervisor encouraged her, "Why always use others as examples? Why don’t you draw on your own experience?"

 

After some hesitation, she finally chose "Lesbian Leadership and Media Activism in China" as the topic of her dissertation. She found that compared to men, most of the Chinese media tend to portray female leaders like her in an exaggerated "sympathetic" frame -- they often describe "how thin and vulnerable the girl is" even though the girl is doing something powerful. Also, a lot of the media coverage diverged from the textbook issues that she was campaigning about to focus on her personal story, which she didn't expect before she took action, and it wasn't the result she wanted.

 

The issues that Huang cared most about did not change even when she was now in England. At the time of the Taiwan referendum in November 2018, Huang had just started her postgraduate studies at Sheffield University. Five of the ten proposals in the referendum were related to LGBT rights and gender equality in education. Worried about the result of the vote, she went to the student union to launch a signature event to bring attention to the vote for same-sex marriage in Taiwan. She ended up with only a few East Asian students and relatively more European ones. Some Europeans thanked her for organising this event as they knew little or nothing about the fight for LGBT rights going on in East Asia. However, although she felt that she had facilitated meaningful communication between the two communities of different cultures, she also wondered whether all Europeans had the illusion that the struggle for human rights in East Asia was some backward struggle they need not pay much attention to.

 

One day, when she had asked the university's LGBT community to support this event, she found gay activists there somewhat indifferent. Huang later discussed this with friends concerning whether British people generally may simply be Eurocentric and have no interest in eastern culture and this attitude might even apply to some LGBT people who one should expect to otherwise identify more with the marginalised and oppressed elsewhere in the world. Having achieved legalisation on same-sex marriage in Britain, perhaps such people felt no need to care about the situation in other countries.

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Facebook event page: Support LGBT+ rights referendums in Taiwan! Photoshoot (20th Nov 2018)

One of the questions in the referendum was, "Do you agree that civil marriage should be limited to the union of a man and a woman?" The final results on this question was that 72.48% of the respondents agreed against 27.52% who disagreed. Several other proposals to increase gender equality in education also failed. As the votes were being counted, the Taiwan LGBT Hotline, an NGO that Huang had volunteered to work for, organised an event to follow the voting results together while Huang was alone in her student accommodation in Sheffield. Worried that the results might not be good, she was afraid to check it immediately. When she woke up the next morning and saw the disappointing results, she began to cry.

 

Previously, Huang was outgoing and liked to make friends everywhere but after this vote her personality changed dramatically and she only wanted to stay in her room alone. She began to wonder whether all that she had done before made sense and why the results were so unsatisfactory after so many years of social movement. It took her a long time to convince herself that taking a decade or two was not unusual for a social reform. For her, the importance of a community is whether or not someone is with you when political events like this happen.

Establishment of the Chinese LGBTQ+ community in the UK

In Qiu Bai's original plan, she was supposed to spend a year focusing on academic studies. Though she found she could not focus solely on her studies, she still wanted to put what she had been learning into practice.

 

In her previous activism about the school textbooks, she often found it challenging to communicate her ideas to the media and educators, which she attributed to a lack of knowledge. During her postgraduate studies she met many people with high educational levels, good public speaking abilities and a broad vision. Simply, many people were better than her academically. Then she realised, "Maybe in many issues, knowledge is not the most critical factor, but courage is. Although I always felt that I didn't have the strength to get to such a high position, the fact was that I was the only one who did it.”

 

When Qiu Bai first arrived in the UK, she participated in many LGBT-themed events that opened her eyes, such as LGBTQ+ film festivals, tours, lectures and book launches. Unfortunately, there were few Chinese faces at these events, and perhaps the language barrier is the main reason. Most Chinese students come to London for only a full year, and some of them are curious about local cultures and have tried to join in some local communities’ events. But they find it hard just to understand what other people are saying, let alone fit into the communities. However, some of the services, such as psychological counselling and support for the fight against domestic violence, or issues regarding gender reassignment therapy and surgery, and the prevention of AIDS, are also in demand in the Chinese community.

 

Moreover, many of the LGBT-themed events that are best known to Chinese people actually have many hidden problems. For example, Qiu Bai was one of the organisers of the Chinese group appearing at the event Gay Pride in London for the first time in 2019. But in fact, she didn't quite agree with Gay Pride.

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Qiu Bai in International Women's Day's parade in London

Gay Pride in London, she found, was businesslike and middle-class. Most of the attention was on the shows in the parades, and only commercial companies can afford to organise the shows. It is easy for these companies to pay money to sponsor Gay Pride and gain a reputation of being "gay-friendly". However, do they spend the same amount of time and energy on issues with sexual minorities within the corporate system? The answer is uncertain. She found that the non-profit LGBT organisations or groups either don't have enough money to join in or are just poorly organised. In the parade, the non-profit LGBT communities, which should be proud of themselves, actually get little attention. Some LGBTQ+ organisations in the UK oppose Gay Pride, and in Qiu Bai's view, those voices should not be ignored.

 

Huang's question about Gay Pride lies in that, as she saw it, Gay Pride imitated the Carnival in Brazil, and the significance of the carnival for the local poor people lies in that only on this day in the whole year can they wear any clothes they want as a way of signifying their hoped for liberation and identities. Gay Pride mimics the concept, meaning that in the countries where gay people are not accepted, you would normally hide your sexual orientation, but on the day of the parade, you could happily walk down the street and be yourself. However, she wondered, “Why do I have to hide for a year and be myself for one day only."

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Huang has been elected an LGBT representative at the University of Sheffield

Similar to Qiu bai, Huang rarely saw faces from East Asia when she volunteered and worked as an intern for the LGBT Foundation in the UK. This organisation is part supported through fundraising and partly by grants from the Big Lottery Fund, and other funding through various state or local organisations. East Asian immigrants also paid taxes to the government every month, but they didn't get the services. Huang wondered, was it because there was no demand in East Asian communities?

 

In some other institutions that Huang had volunteered, she also found that sometimes even if these institutions do not explicitly exclude East Asians, there will be some implicit exclusion. Huang gave a hypothetical example, "if we are discussing some social policy issues like legalising same-sex marriage with a group of white people, They will tell me that they are willing to hear my views about the same-sex marriage. But when it comes to a summary or decision, it's highly likely that most of my opinions will not be adopted. I'm wondering that probably due to I don't even come from a country where has legalised same-sex marriage. Or maybe sometimes I don't express my opinions accurately and confidently enough, so I won't sound convincing to them.”

 

In other places, discrimination was more straightforward. Although most of the Europeans Huang met were friendly, she was once told to "fuck off and go back to China" in a gay bar in Manchester's Gay Village. On the train from Liverpool to Manchester, she was repeatedly insulted by a man in his fifties with phrases such as "I won't buy yellow bananas" (yellow people raised in white culture are often referred to as "bananas"). Because of her poor English, she had always assumed that the man was enthusiastically making friends. Once, Huang was punched in the stomach by a white girl's boyfriend in a straight bar just because Huang responded to the girl's invitation of hugging and Huang's hair was short, which makes her look like a "butch".

 

These experiences made her realise that specific attention to and organisation for East Asian LGBT communities were necessary. Not only do Asians sometimes fail to express their deeper feelings in English, but Asians also face racial discrimination on top of discrimination about their sexual identities, even within LGBT environments.

 

Therefore, as an intern at the LGBT Foundation in Manchester, Huang founded the East Asian LGBTQ+ Social Group on Facebook. She organised many offline activities in this group, such as queer movie screenings and Taiwanese tea tasting.

 

She didn't think much about it at the time, but still, when she studied Adler's psychological theory that argues "the fundamental motive of all individuals is to 'belong' to the human community -- to have a place that will contribute to the well-being of human society," she thought that this was exactly what she was longing for.

 

After graduating, Qiu Bai founded the Queer China UK website (queerchinauk.com) and a WeChat social media account called "Queer in the UK", on which she mainly manages event hosting and posts articles along with three or four friends. Since queerchinauk started to operate in March this year, it has held six online events, including Chinese LGBT+ and female artists themed tours, and offering psychological support and job advice for British overseas students. It had also introduced LGBT communities in British universities on its website and WeChat account. Some of these events charge a fee, but the prices are not high. Not all Chinese overseas students come from well-off backgrounds and she hopes that students from low-income families, who cannot afford to go out much, will also be able to participate.

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Queer China UK take part in the digital Pride in London 2020 parade at Piccadilly Circus on June 27, 2020 in London, England.

[Photo by Ioana Marinca/ Pride in London]

After coming to London, due to the physical separation and time difference, Qiu Bai had less contact with her friends in the LGBT community in China and felt very lonely. But after starting her LGBT events in the UK, she has met many new friends and has gained a sense of support and belonging through facilitating such a nascent community.

What are the real needs of Chinese LGBT people?

Qiu Bai and Huang's communities have been recognised by some other LGBT groups, but they have not become widely known yet. Of the seven or eight events that Huang has held, the largest one had only 12 participants, and many of them were her friends. She thought it had something to do with the fact that she had only used Facebook to promote her events and thus did not have enough directed influence.

 

Qiu Bai also considered that this need for a Chinese LGBT community in the UK might just exist in her imagination. Now that so many young Chinese regularly come to the UK to study, why do they still confine themselves to Chinese related activities or a student-centred world?  

 

In fact, even if there is a need for community, everyone's needs are different. Nico, who is studying Performance Design and Practice at the University of the Arts London, does not need to find her identity within the LGBT community, but still has social and emotional needs. She has been aware of her affection for girls since junior high school. Her friends were aware of her queer identity, but she had not faced overt discrimination. Her most obvious sense of marginality comes not from her identity as a sexual minority but as an art student. Most Chinese, including her parents, think there is no future for art students.

 

Her family feared that she would be discriminated against for her sexual orientation. But when they accompanied her to the UK, they saw rainbow flags all over the street and knew that she would not be discriminated against. Nico's family felt more at ease when she showed them her good grades and comments on her affirmative action homework about equality.

 

She came to London last September for her undergraduate studies. At the time, she was not 18 and could not go to lesbian bars to make new friends. Also, many of the girls on dating apps were just there for chatting instead of building deeper relationships, which made her feel lonely for a long time. Thus, the social network provided by the LGBT community was critical to her.

 

Qiu Bai has found that the coronavirus has increased the need for social contact. Some of the influences of the coronavirus are the same for LGBT people as for other Chinese students: those who want to return to China cannot get a plane ticket, and those from China cannot come to study in the UK. A more noticeable influence is loneliness. Without offline communication, it is difficult for them to make new friends. Even if there are some online social events in the UK, Chinese people rarely participate.

 

Binhua, who studies applied anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, socialises widely and is always out to everyone. Hence, the gay community is a natural part of his life, and he doesn't need to seek out an LGBT community as such. He is more concerned about the clarity of the issues in LGBT movements. "If you're participating in a social movement, think about what you're trying to achieve, like what awareness you're trying to raise. And I, as a participant, would think, is doing this really going to raise my awareness? Will it change my situation? If participants don't have an issue of their own, and the leaders insist on giving them an issue, there is no way for them to really participate. The movement to them would only be an opportunity to socialise."

 

However, according to Qiu Bai, many of the Chinese LGBT movement's issues are very clear, such as legalising same-sex marriage. But this is a longer-term goal that cannot be achieved through one or two actions. In her own experience, when she went to a lecture for a specific purpose, her biggest gain was not knowledge, but new friends. In her future interactions with these friends, she would probably get more thinking than she did in that one lecture.

 

Qiu Bai does not see a pressing need among the Chinese LGBT community in London, but there is a need to socialise. A lot of people participating in the events do not aim to appeal for equality, because they live well and do not encounter much discrimination. Qiu Bai won't stubbornly try to change this attitude: "I consider that I do the work for LGBT causes, and the purpose is to make us live without discrimination in this world. But if some are already happy and feel secure, that purpose has already been reached, why force them to fight for the rights of others not so lucky as them? They will realise the inequality in the world sooner or later, and I don't need to educate them like a teacher."

 

Thus her main desire for the Queer China UK website is as an association to communicate with each other. Qiu Bai also hopes that queerchinauk will somehow be able to make enough money to keep operating. If given the opportunity, she would also like to share these resources with the LGBT community in China.

 

Huang is about to leave the UK, but no matter which country she goes to, she will continue to work in and for East Asian LGBT+ social groups.

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In July 2019, Qiubai teamed up with the Singapore queer community to organize a "Pinkdot" event in Russell Square

This ongoing attempt to improve visibility is a unique form of addressing the unmet needs of the Chinese and Asian LGBT community in the UK. "Intersection, the edge of the edge", as Bin Hua puts it, "is perhaps an apt description."

 

As a non-heterosexual, non-white, non-male, Huang had felt so unlucky when she was so young because she was not mainstream at all. However, as she grew older, she encouraged herself that "the edge of the edge" would also have their chances. "Because there is something that only we can see, only we in this position can do. I feel lucky to think so."