Chinese gay bars open, activism slowed during Olympics

Source: Washington Blade
Date: 15 August 2008

Chinese gay bars open, activism slowed during Olympics
Activists find inspiration, new enemies from the West

LAURA DOUGLAS-BROWN
Friday, August 15, 2008

The first paragraph of the Aug. 9 entry on John Amaechi’s blog could have been written by any Olympic tourist guilty of staying up too late to take in the local culture.

“I had to wake up at 6 a.m. this morning, which was not fun considering I had been up until 3 a.m., watching the opening ceremony and hanging out at ‘Destination’ again,” he wrote. “I have to say that it got busy very late — I am officially too old for bars that close at 5 a.m.”

Only Amaechi isn’t just any tourist, and Destination isn’t just any bar. Last year, Amaechi made worldwide headlines when he became the first NBA player to come out as gay, three years after retiring from professional basketball. And Destination is the most popular, contemporary gay bar in Beijing, which some activists had fretted would face closure as the Chinese government tried to strictly manage the city’s image during the Olympic Games.

Now, Amaechi, who once feared being ostracized in the sports world, is in Beijing to broadcast Olympic basketball games for the BBC. And the party at Destination continues, drawing a mix of Chinese citizens, ex-pats, and tourists.

“It is a sizeable club, very pleasant staff, which is not a given in every gay bar,” Amaechi told the Blade.

Amaechi noted a lack of racial diversity — “Not many black people about in Beijing outside of the athletes” — and a lack of dancing on weeknights, but otherwise found Destination to be similar to many high-end Western gay bars.

Destination’s Edmund Yang confirmed that the club, which recently expanded from one floor to two, is open and thriving with the Olympics underway.

“So far we have seen more foreign visitors coming to Destination,” he said. “We had a large crowd on the dance floor on Aug. 9, Saturday. The highlight of the night was most of them singing along to the chorus of ‘YMCA’ when I played this oldie towards the end of my set.”

But while gay nightlife has continued in Beijing during the Olympics, Chinese activists acknowledge that the Games have impacted their work.

“There are many new regulations on security, such as Internet censorship, travel, migrant workers in Beijing,” said Bin Xu, who leads an organization for lesbian and bisexual women based in the Chinese capital. “We have to be careful with our work to avoid intriguing safety concerns.”

The heightened security and general restrictions in place during the Games make activist work almost impossible, agreed Damien Lu, a volunteer with Aibai Culture & Education Center, which operates two gay centers and a gay library.

“Most LGBT groups, particularly those in Beijing and surrounding areas, have completely suspended their work during the Olympic period, partly because of logistic reasons (transportation problems, etc), partly because the Beijing public security has become hysterical and closed down many entertainment venues, gay or otherwise,” said Lu, who lives in Los Angeles but travels to China frequently for gay rights work and maintains constant contact with activists there.

“Since many of these groups’ work consists mainly of conducting outreach at these venues, it effectively made it impossible for them to continue,” he said.

‘Homosexuality and AIDS’

Olympic visitors to Beijing will also see another familiar symbol: the ubiquitous red ribbon that has come to recognize the fight against HIV.

According to reports in state-run Chinese media, the Red Cross Society of China plans to pass out thousands of copies of “Together for HIV and AIDS Prevention: A Toolkit for the Sports Community” during the Games, while also stressing HIV awareness at Chinese universities.

The Olympic effort focuses generally on preventing HIV transmission and discrimination, but as in the United States, the fight for increasing visibility for gay people in China has been inextricably linked to the fight against HIV.

Today, an estimated 700,000 Chinese are HIV-positive. Some 11.1 percent contracted the virus through male-male sexual contact, according to a report from the Chinese Ministry of Health, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization.

The Chinese government did not issue its first research on HIV and gay men until 2004. But since then, outreach efforts, ranging from targeted prevention campaigns to free health clinics for gay men, have been frequent subjects of matter-of-fact news reports from state-run media like the Xinhua News Agency.

“In recent years, the government has made a lot of effort to involve the LGBT community in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Toward that end, the health branch of the government approves of LGBT work and has good relationship with us as well,” said Lu, the Aibai Culture & Education Center volunteer.

Although the government works openly with gay groups in efforts to stem a growing AIDS epidemic, criticism of its efforts from within may meet with a far different response.

Dr. Wan Yanhai, founder of the AIDS-related Aizhixing Institute, has twice been arrested for speaking out against the government’s response to AIDS. In 2002, he went public with information about blood-contamination that may have led to hundreds of thousands of infections; he was arrested again in 2006 for claiming the government was asleep at the wheel in AIDS prevention efforts.

And for Chinese gay activists, being linked with HIV is a double-edged sword — a dilemma familiar to those in the West. On one hand, the fight against HIV has helped bring gay issues into the forefront, increasing the visibility of gay men and forging alliances between activists and government health workers.

But the two issues now run the risk of being not only related, but conflated in the eyes of both government and the general public.

Western exports

Along with stereotypes about homosexuality and pressure from families, gay Chinese face an additional hurdle, Bin noted. Despite the fact that homosexuality has been documented in the country as far back as the Chinese dynasties, where emperors’ male liaisons were accepted, Bin and her fellow activists must also battle the idea that being lesbian or gay is “something bad imported from the West,” she said.

There is something bad being imported from the West, but it isn’t gay visibility, according to Lu of Aibai Center.

“I think we need to alert our friends here about two relatively recent developments in China, because both are partly the result of U.S. ‘exports’ and we need everyone’s help to stop them,” he said.

The two unwelcome exports are religious fundamentalism and ex-gay therapy, Lu said.

“Many of the religious fringe elements, having been kept at bay in the U.S. by the LGBT community, are seeing China as a new territory,” he said. “There’s been a huge surge of various religious extremist groups entering in to China.”

Lu cited James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, a well-known foe of American gay rights groups that now has chapters in China. Dobson, whose name is translated as “Dr. Du Busen” on Focus on the Family’s Chinese website, also appears regularly on Chinese state-run radio.

Focus on the Family did not respond to interview requests about their Chinese chapters.

Homosexuality was officially removed from China’s list of mental disorders in 2001, but Lu said “ex-gay” therapy is also common. “Many religious conservatives from the West, mainly the U.S., go to China as mental health experts, and continue to spread lies,” he said. “In the past two years, Aibai has twice organized activists in successfully defeating two events billed as seminars or conferences on sexuality while in reality, they were venues for ‘reparative therapy’ proponents to spread their misinformation.”

But Western influence can also be a positive factor for lesbian and gay Chinese. As the country emerges from decades of cultural isolation, websites like Aibai bring news of gay rights struggles around the world to Chinese citizens every day.

“Although in different continents and social, cultural and political environments, we find many things in common between LGBT people in the U.S. and in China: the oppression from the mainstream society towards sexual minorities, and the struggles LGBT people go through,” Bin said.

“We are inspired by many stories in the history of the LGBT movement in the States, the courage and the dedication of LGBT individuals to make social change. We hope to do the same.”

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