Yang Shi, age 25, is a gay advocate from East China who currently lives in New York City and studies International Affairs at Columbia University. I met him at the International AIDS Conference 2016 in South Africa. Yang, who began his advocacy career as an intern in Beijing’s LGBT Center, is the Founder and President of the LGBT Youth Network in China, which has members representing all provinces across the country. In 2016, the members of the Network came together for the country’s first LGBT Youth Forum in Chengdu.
Although homosexuality or transgenderism are not illegal in China, LGBT people face a lot of challenges related to homophobia and transphobia. For example, Human Rights Watch recently published an article on the widespread use of conversion therapy in Chinese public and private clinics, which includes practices such as “coercion and threats, physical abduction, arbitrary confinement, forced medication and injection, and use of electroshocks”. Homophobia also prevents LGBT youth in China from organizing themselves and promoting LGBT equality and sexual rights in their schools: “LGBT advocacy is not tolerated by school authorities. LGBT students in China who wish to undertake these efforts either face a strong suppression from school authorities or censor themselves heavily. They lack the resources, knowledge, skills, funding, and communication channels to develop advocacy”, explained Yang in an interview at his dormitory apartment at Columbia University.
The first LGBT Youth Forum in China, made possible by the support of a local organization in Chengdu, was composed of eleven sessions covering topics spanning school environments, transgender health, bisexuality, and BDSM practices. Notably, the Forum provided a space where LGBT youth from different Chinese provinces found solidarity: “Young people in China lack the experience of assemblies, associations and democratic practices. We have been discouraged since childhood from engaging in social public life and participating in politics and decision making. Young LGBT people need the knowledge and support of democratic student groups that are to serve their peers”.
From Yang Shi’s perspective, the international community needs to support not only large or professional LGBT organizations in China, but also student advocacy groups across different schools and universities: “Student and youth groups are marginalized at the international level. We need resources to get attention and to be heard. International organizations should regularly include youth organizations in their meetings and decision making.”
Despite minimal support available to LGBT youth groups in China, Yang is optimistic and believes that the current generation of young advocates are the driving force that will transform the current sexual rights panorama in the country: “This generation is much more open-minded. We grew up valuing freedom, democracy, justice, and human rights. It is easier for us to communicate with our peers, to mobilize each other, and to defend the rights of LGBT people.”
Apart from creating spaces to organize themselves and conduct advocacy at schools, one of the greatest challenges ahead for this new generation of LGBT advocates is breaking traditional gender norms that have been so damaging to Chinese society: “Chinese gender norms about are very oppressing. Many still lack awareness on this issue. Equal rights are necessary for all, including LGBT people and non-LGBT people who do not conform to traditional gender norms”, concluded Yang Shi.