Pride celebrations around the United States are wrapping up this week, with hungover revelers in New York and San Francisco caffeinating their way to work and hardworking cleanup crews sweeping up confetti, placards, and free product samples from Kiehl’s.
In Shanghai, China, which hosted its ninth annual Pride celebrations over the past two weeks, the vibe was a bit more subdued. Political demonstrations of any kind are banned in China, so there was no parade. On the other hand, there was a Pride bike ride, Pride run, Pride dance party, Pride women’s dance party, Pride barbecue, Pride film festival, Pride photo exhibition—you get the idea.
Shanghai Pride is the tale of two cities—almost of two time periods. While I danced the night away with a cosmopolitan, internationalist crowd at the official Pride party on a Saturday night, activists from around the country painted dire pictures for me of their constituents still struggling for basic acceptance and safety.
Charlene Liu, one of the founders of Shanghai Pride, told me that the most important issues for Chinese LGBT people are not the same as those in America—they are more fundamental.
“The main issues are acceptance and self-acceptance,” she told me, shouting over the din of a barbecue brunch on the deck of a fancy downtown hotel. “Everything else is like a snowball effect.”
In China, Liu explained, the primary issues are social, rather than strictly political. “The family culture—being able to start a family, getting married, having children to carry on the family name—that itself is one of the biggest issues in the country. And that leads to a whole set of different issues like, do I go into a marriage of convenience, do I become a single parent, and so on.”
Indeed, while a few hundred partiers indulged in some good old-fashioned day drinking on the hotel deck, a constellation of activists from around the country gathered inside in an events hall and told me harrowing tales of people being virtually imprisoned by their own families or afraid to come out because of family reprisals.
One activist from the mostly Muslim Xinjiang district, along China’s Western border with central Asian republics, told me that most LGBT people were in “marriages of convenience” and that coming out was unrealistic. And yet he also handed me a glossy brochure from the Xinjiang LGBT Center featuring photos from their panels on HIV prevention, social programs, and even the Xinjiang Blue Voice Chorus. (Ask anyone: People in China sing a lot.)
“In our community, many people are suffering from mental problems,” said the director of Mr. Milk & Her LGBTI Friends, an organization founded last year that provides professional counseling services to LGBT and questioning individuals. “The problem cannot be solved by just simple discussions or activities. We mean to use a more scientific method to deal with this.”
Amazingly, in its first year of operation, the unusually named group (“we wanted to be more gender neutral”) served more than 200 clients.
In some ways, what I found at Shanghai Pride wasn’t so different from what you might experience at a Pride event in an American red state city: urban, educated LGBT people accepting of themselves but well aware that in small towns not that far away, queer folks were living very different lives.
Even within Shanghai proper, though, it was clear that while many LGBTs were living full lives, many others were still wrestling with the “closet” and all that it entails. My friend in town, an activist himself, told me that even at the main gay club in town—identical in style, crowd, and musical taste to hundreds of gay bars anywhere in the world—most of the people were still probably closeted from their parents and work colleagues. Indeed, Western conceptions of being “out” often make little sense in China, where people at the office may know nothing about their colleagues’ personal lives and where “open secrets” are often the best modus operandi for navigating tricky familial relationships.
“Coming out looks simple, but it’s not,” Liu told me. “Everybody goes through a different process.”
I asked Liu what she thought Americans should understand about the Chinese LGBT community—and what we could do to help.
“It’s very important that the community gets some visibility,” she said. “This is what all these grassroots organizations are trying to do: to show that LGBT people are regular people, like that saying, ‘same same but different.’ We are all the same, but how we love, the people we love, are different.”
And what role, if any, could Americans play? “It really helps to get support from friends overseas saying, ‘Hey, we know you’re here, you’re not alone,” Liu said. “It’s just like with young people—a lot of young people think that they’re alone. The important thing is telling people that they’re not alone.”