Ah Qiang, 41, is the Founder of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in China. He grew up in a remote rural area and in 1998 he moved to Guangzhou, one of the most populated cities. After gaining access to the Internet, Qiang realized that he was not the only gay man in his country. In 2000, he wrote a column for a gay website and started doing community advocacy work. When he turned 30, Qiang planned to tell his mother that he was gay, but death stepped in. In 2006, his mother died suddenly of stomach cancer, without knowing that her son was gay. This marked his life and was one of the reasons why he founded PFLAG China.
Ah Qiang did not want to feel the same regret with his father. He told him two years after his mother’s death: “I think we talked for more than an hour. He did not say anything, he just asked me: ‘When you get older, who will take care of you?’ In my dad’s mind, gay men do not marry or have children.” That night, Ah Qiang’s father cooked for him, a gesture of acceptance.
Starting PFLAG in China was not easy. Only six parents came to the first annual meeting in 2009, but now they have chapters across 58 cities with more than 3,000 volunteers and 130,000 members: “Over the past 10 years, we have built a nationwide network of LGBT support and promoted these people to become active volunteers and gay activists. Our work has played an important role in changing the culture and enhancing the visibility of the LGBT community.”
When asked about how challenging is it today to be a gay activist in China, Ah Qiang reflects on the view that the government still has on homosexuality and how it affects the visibility of LGBT people in public spaces and especially in the media, where there is censorship on the topic: “Gay people in China can live lying for a long time. Many homosexuals will still go into heterosexual marriage, disguised as heterosexuals, and there are practically no openly gay government officials and celebrities. However, I don’t want people to lose their chance of sharing who they are with whom they love, as happened to me.”
Through his work with PFLAG, Ah Qiang has heard many family stories, some of them tragic. In 2010, for example, he received a letter from a mother whose son had committed suicide, after spending four years in a mental health institution.
His parents took him there in the hope that his sexual orientation would change, but he eventually took his own life. When he read this letter, Ah Qiang thought that if they had been able to reach him or his family sooner, they might have saved the young man’s life.
Ah Qiang has also witnessed stories of acceptance, like the case of a mother living in a rural area. She tried to convince the parents of her son’s boyfriend that they were a good family. Same sex marriage is not legal in China, so she wrote a contract as a way of formalizing the relationship between her son and his boyfriend. The contract said that if one of them died, the other one would inherit his property. “Without any type of higher education, this woman supports her son totally, and he and his boyfriend have been living together for three years.”
Despite of the government’s ambiguous attitude and the lack of laws that protect LGBT rights, more and more LGBT people are living according to their identities in the largest Chinese cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, where according to Ah Qiang, the lives of many LGBT individuals are not different from the lives of other LGBT individuals in a place like New York: “To analyze the situation of LGBT people in China, we need to see these contradictions. Shanghai, Beijing and other great cities do not represent China, of course, and the smaller inland cities do not represent China as well. All of them are different faces of China ”.