Interview: Lesbian Organising in China - Xian and Xiangqi

I believe the key lies in the personal level: each individual’s realisation, choice and action will decide the movement’s direction and speed. That is why I choose to start from grassroot work rather than high-level campaigns and the best part of it is that I truly enjoy what I do. I learn and grow along.

Xian and Xiangqi

Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Xian: I was a student in Beijing when I became involved in LGBT activism in 1995 by volunteering to translate LGBT related educational materials from PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). In 1997, I went to study in the United States, where I co-founded Lavender Phoenix, the email network and support group for lesbian and bisexual women in and from Mainland China. We organised several retreats for lesbians in North America, sponsored lesbian filmmakers from China and Hong Kong to participate in Lesbian and Gay film festivals in the States, and raised funds for lesbian activism in China. In 2001 we participated in the Dyke March in New York City, and for the first time represented a group of lesbians from China. In 2002, I co-founded the Institute for Tongzhi Studies, a New York based organisation dedicated to promote LGBT rights through academic work in Chinese speaking communities. 

In 2004 I moved back to Beijing and met Anchor, a local lesbian activist. Anchor has been organising cultural events for lesbians in Beijing since 2002. She began by hosting a feminist forum discussing lesbian issues and organising lesbian performances. Together with Anchor we started the Beijing Lala Salon- a lesbian discussion forum and support group in November 2004. Common Language was founded later in January 2005, and it was the only lesbian group in operation in China at the time. 

Xiangqi: I used to live in a small town in China where it was difficult to live with my female lover. So we both moved to Shanghai several years ago, but that relationship did not last. I found myself desperately needing support but at the time, there was no lesbian network. I realised that there are many women like me who need to share and communicate their experiences with other lesbian women. I then began a lesbian website in China.

What is the situation for lesbians and gays in China? 

Xian: In 2004, there were very few lesbian support groups in China, compared to more than thirty gay men’s groups working on AIDS issues with men who have sex with men (MSM). Lesbians went to online chat rooms to look for girlfriends, and stayed with a girlfriend in private until they broke up, and then went to the chat room again. Lesbians did not have a life or voice in public. Most people were in the closet, and did not have friends or family who can provide support when in crisis. 

Most lesbians in China either stay at home with their girlfriend all the time because going out will increase the risk of meeting other lesbians and breaking up, or else they would get married to a man and stay on the Internet looking for love in a virtual space. Lesbians relationships are very fragile, and most young women do not have much hope in their future.

Xiangqi: It was very difficult to meet other lesbians in real life. Between 1999 and 2002, the Internet had begun to change this fact - lesbians in China could learn, acknowledge and consult intensely about homosexual issues. In 2002, most lesbians in the city mainly used the Internet, checking out websites, chat rooms, finding friends, and so on, but people were very careful. The emergence of the lesbian website that I began transformed lesbian lives to a great degree, it changed their lives and life situations in China.

How did you begin your organisation? 

Xian: Lesbian and bisexual women are called lala here in China. Beijing Lala Salon is a weekly gathering for lesbian and bisexual women to share issues in life and support each other. The salon was the first activity we organised in Beijing. The reason why we started it is very simple. When I met Anchor in Beijing in 2004, the only ‘group activity’ we had was a lesbian night in a rented bar each Saturday. The women who went there were 20 years old on the average. 

Xiangqi: On January 1st 2002, I began ‘The Place with Growing Flowers’, a mainland China lesbian website. The website has been organising for five years. My website provided a platform for Chinese lesbians to share their lives and exchange ideas. At the same time, I collected more and more information on lesbians from the website. The lesbian website is good for cultural and educational purposes, it assists in creating a lesbian community, serves the needs of lesbians, and promotes a healthy lesbian life style. In June 2005, I set up the ‘Shanghai Women Love Women Working Group’ which is a lesbian grassroots organisation.

How do lesbians organise as a group? What are the difficulties in terms of organising and being lesbian/activist in china?

Xian: Anchor and I decided to do something to change the situation. We wanted to have a place that lesbians would feel safe to come to, and more importantly, where they could talk to each other, share their life stories and support each other. We especially hoped that lesbians of different ages would come, for example, those who are over 25 years old and are beginning to feel the pressure from their families to marry, and those who are above 40 or even 50 who might still be in a heterosexual marriage, and have been struggling with their sexuality for many years. We wanted the place to be in public, because we have had enough of the so-called underground life. Lesbians need to be more visible, but people need to feel more comfortable and confident about themselves first. 

Anchor found a bar that was willing to work with us. We started the first Salon in November 2004. We would usually show a lesbian film first, and then discuss an issue that is related to women and sexuality. Some friends warned us that the Salon would not last for more than six weeks. It is just very difficult to get people out in a public place and talk about lesbian issues.

Xiangqi: Although we work passionately, it is often not easy. One of the major problems is we do not have any funding support and cannot sustain our volunteers. When we need money to work, often the volunteers donate their limited savings. Too often our volunteers feel helpless. Not having any funding minimises our activities, yet we try to do what we can.

What are your organisation’s activities? 

Xian: We have had many ‘six weeks’ since we began... During the past two years, we had over 100 salons and the number of people that attended has exceeded 4,000. Each time some new face would show up: teenagers who had run away from home because they quarrel with their parents about being lesbian, women whose girlfriend just left to marry a man, or women who have been married for over 20 years but have always felt different inside. Some women did not know any other lesbians in life before they came to the Salon and they were very nervous the first time. Some even pretended to be passers-by and watched us for a while before joining in. It is very interesting to see how quickly they change. They would feel much more relaxed and make many friends in a few weeks. Men and straight women come to the Salon too: researchers, husbands of lesbian wives, gay men, feminists and journalists. We welcome all genders and sexualities. It is crucial to create the opportunity for others to understand us before we can get their support.

The topics we discuss at the Salon cover a wide range – finding one’s identity, skills of coming out to parents, how to maintain a long term relationship while there is no legal protection, and tips for safer sex between women, which turns out to be the hottest topic and attracts lots of people each time.

Xianqi: In June 2005, Shanghai lesbian activists and volunteers gathered together and set up a care and support group. The group aims at learning the reality of lesbian lives within the lesbian community, acknowledging the living environment, and the difficulties and ways of solving the problems. The group has developed a few projects: lesbian hotline (++86-21-51028583), experience sharing, salons, seminars, oral history project, and outreach which aims at helping lesbians with similar experiences to share the knowledge, to be able to self identify and self accept, in order to accept lesbianism and to build up a diverse and humane society in which lesbians can live as equal citizens.

What else does your organisation do? Do you work with others?

Xian: Along with the Salon, we quickly launched the Beijing Lala Salon website and opened a lesbian hotline in December 2004. In 2006, the number of hotlines has increased to four, and the service hours have increased to 20 per week. Our website has also become a major source for lesbians to seek information on lesbian related news and culture in Chinese. Realising the importance of role models, we have set up a special section to introduce lesbians in history. There is hardly any material available in Chinese, so we have to do a lot of translation. For lesbian history in China, we have to write it ourselves one day.

It was not until two months after beginning Salon activities that we sent out the first call for volunteers. Our first group meeting was in January 2005 and 20 people attended. We decided to form a support group of lesbian and bisexual women in China. We called it Common Language. The pronunciation in Chinese is similar to Tong Ny, referring to lesbians. We believe that people are able to understand and respect each other’s difference through communication. While the Salon provides a space mainly for lesbians to communicate with each other, we also try to create communication between lesbians and the general public. In August 2005, Chinese Newsweek, an important mainstream magazine, had a feature story about Salon. It was the very first serious article in mainstream Chinese media on lesbians in China. 

We also encourage women to make films about lesbians’ lives, organise film screenings in public and send their work to international film festivals. Before 2004 there were only two films about lesbians in China, and now the number has gone up to six, and more films are expected to be out in the near future. 

Together with student groups in universities, we organise forums and talks on LGBT issues. It is the first time for many people to get to see and listen to a lesbian in real life. People ask all kind of naïve questions, but the overall feedback is quite friendly which is really encouraging. In the summer of 2005, we started a research project on lesbians’ lives in China. In six months we got more than 1000 responses to our survey and wrote a lengthy report that covered a wide range of issues, from social pressure and mental health to sexual practice. It was the first field study of lesbians in China and it provided some crucial concrete data.

Xiangqi: We have built good relationships and active cooperation with other lesbian and gay organisations, and universities in Shanghai and elsewhere. We have worked together with the ‘Common Language’ lesbian group in Beijing on the activities of experience sharing. We have also done an Internet survey; attended and presented at the course on homosexuality at the Fudan University in Shanghai; assisted researchers on gender from Hong Kong to interview local lesbians; assisted feminists and professors working on gender issues to do research with lesbians; and, also worked together with gay men’s groups on experience sharing and discussions.

What is the situation like now? What do you hope to achieve?

Xian: Common Language was one of few lesbian support groups in China. Many people came to our salon from other places, sometimes even from a small town in a remote area, just to get the feeling of being with someone alike, someone who can talk to and understand them. Later, we started to get calls from people who wanted to set up similar groups in their own city and organise salons. In June 2005, we organised a national conference on lesbian activism in Beijing. More than 40 people from 20 cities attended, including long-time lesbian activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 2006, we co-sponsored the LGBT student summer camp, trying to get more young people engaged into activism. In 2005 and 2006, 4 other lesbian groups were formed in China, and lesbians are organising salons in other cities. At the end of 2005, a lesbian bi-monthly magazine Les+ was born. It is the only lesbian paper magazine in China. There have been a total of 7 issues by the end of 2006 and 15,000 copies were sent out to lesbians in over 40 cities in China. By setting up a distribution network, we got connected with many more lesbians who are interested to do something to make a change. One of our plans in 2007 is to look for seed money to help more lesbian support groups to be formed in China. 

Xiangqi: Our activities and organising encouraged lesbians to exchange and share more; it united every lesbian and gay group to cooperate and to help each other; it increased the lesbian community’s solidarity. In November 2005, representatives from the ‘Shanghai Women Love Women Working Group’ appeared in the course on homosexuality at the Fudan University and made a presentation to the class. In June 2006, the group celebrated pride month and flew rainbow kites at the campus in Fudan University.

How does the lesbian movement compare with the gay movement in your city or in China?

Xian: Most gay men’s groups in China focus on HIV/ AIDS prevention in the MSM community, which has brought in lots of social attention and funding. Lesbians, on the other hand, are totally left out of the picture. Those health organisations do not have information on lesbians’ health either. Therefore, we do not have much cooperation because of the lack of a common focus. We do work closely with LGBT rights groups in China, and are actively involved in cultural events, for example, Beijing gay and lesbian cultural festivals.

Xiangqi: In Shanghai, there are a couple of organisations for gay men, but only one or two groups for lesbians. 

What is your view of the future of the lesbian movement in China?

Xian: Speaking about the future of lesbian movement in China, I hope it will be a vibrant part of the overall democratic movement in China. The process by which one starts to realise one’s rights and then learns to go for them is what interests me most. I believe the key lies in the personal level: each individual’s realisation, choice and action will decide the movement’s direction and speed. That is why I choose to start from grassroot work rather than high-level campaigns and the best part of it is that I truly enjoy what I do. I learn and grow along.

Xianqi: I hope that Chinese lesbians in the big cities will organise all kinds of activities for themselves. Besides, lesbians will be looking more at their rights of citizenship and seeking social security and health insurance as lesbian couples. I will continue my lesbian activism and at the same time I am considering running a business for the lesbian community.