Under the bright lights, alone on stage, Joan is weeping.
The slight, pretty woman traveled with other families from Guangxi to share her story with more than 500 friends and strangers at the Guangzhou regional conference of PFLAG China.
“My husband drank too much one night and forgot his phone at home,” Joan explained. She is using a pseudonym, a common choice for times like this. “So when I called him, I heard it ringing and found it nearby. When I saw the text messages on the screen, I knew it was true.”
Like an estimated 16 million women in China, Joan’s husband is gay. She’d suspected there were many boyfriends in the picture, during their year living in different cities, but the confirmation of those racy messages still left her devastated. She got an HIV test the next day and demanded a divorce after that. He refused and promised there’d be no more sex with others – here the silence of the room erupts into knowing laughter. Joan goes on to recount how she opened an account on Blued (the community and dating app for China’s gay men) to see if he was active. He was. She found evidence that just two days before the conference he’d broken his promise with not one, but two other men. The room gasps.
“He continues to deny my divorce requests, so I filed suit. But he’s gone to the court to delay the case, again and again.” Adding to the difficulty, he borrowed huge sums from Joan that he’s yet to pay back. But she barely cares about that now. She just wants to get out and start her life again.
The room swells with applause and support as she concludes and makes way for the next speaker, a psychologist who gives the parents in the room the frank diagnosis that “Being homosexual is not an illness.” She’ll repeat the message time and again that afternoon. In many cases, it’s penetrating the misunderstandings and helping China’s families avoid the fate of Joan.
PFLAG China – named for, but unaffiliated with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the US nonprofit – formed 10 years ago with that mission in mind. The earliest days in 2009 saw the group of volunteers launch an ambitious national conference in Guangzhou, inviting 50 people from across the country and offering to pay their travel costs. Just six parents showed up.
But in the decade since its founding by Wu Youjian and Ah Qiang (another pseudonym), the group has seen a rate of growth and support unprecedented in China’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Ah Qiang spearheaded the group’s expansion, with chapters in 55 cities across China, 3,000 volunteers and 130,000 members. Training and volunteering with the LA LGBT Center in the summer of 2011 gave him the organizing tactics, management tools and inspiration to make this his full-time job.
“I saw that an NGO (non-governmental organization) could have this kind of very big, huge event,” he explained to Vanguard Now.
“I met a lot of people there, made a lot of friends. I liked the feeling, the atmosphere. I said to myself, ‘I just want these feelings. I want people to trust each other. China is large and people don’t trust each other. So I just wanted to make those feelings happen in China.”
PFLAG China co-founders Ah Qiang (above) and Wu Youjian (below)
Building that community of trust has been the mission since. And it’s been happening one story at a time.
At meetings like the one we attended in Guangzhou, speakers are selected from volunteers who’ve trained in effective storytelling. It’s parents explaining the anxieties of suspecting, then learning, of a child’s orientation. It’s women like Joan sharing their heartbreak. But more and more, it’s stories of hope from parents who learn they’re not alone or couples who finally get permission to bring their adopted baby to visit granny and find relief in their parents’ continued love.
“Earlier, most stories were sad and provoked tears,” explains Eros (another pseudonym), the PFLAG China volunteer turned fundraising staffer. “Now, they’re happier stories about coming out.” The change happened around 2016. Since then, “more and more younger parents are showing up to share their stories. [They] joke around more. They accept their children more easily. More and more parents can see ‘Oh, there are more parents like me. It’s not just our family. It’s okay.’ Many, many years ago, parents didn’t want to come out. After their children came out, they felt nervous because they didn’t see other LGBT families. Now they can.”
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That open attitude is more pronounced in Tier One cities than in small towns, which is one reason the group plans an eightfold expansion, with chapters and volunteers in 400 cities across the country. “Every day, we get messages [saying] ‘How do I talk to my parents about this? I’m living in a small city; I can’t join the events in the larger cities,’” Eros tells us.
“So PFLAG will organize more events in small cities. If I have a volunteer in that city, we will teach the people how to build a small support group in the small cities, to help parents and LGBT people [learn] how to support each other, how to create a small event and how to come out to friends and family. It’s very difficult but very meaningful for the local community.”
“More and more parents can see ‘Oh, there are more parents like me. It’s not just our family. It’s okay.’ ”
It can be even more difficult for young women, who are underrepresented in PFLAG at roughly 16 percent of the national volunteer base. Shenzhen’s chapter is one exception, with female leaders making up half the core team. Fred, one of those women, is frank about the disparity other cities see: “Because of the patriarchal society. Gays and lesbians are obviously separated. [When] most of the founders are men, then women [are] unwilling to follow them.”
Shenzhen’s strong female leadership helped Fred feel comfortable joining a group that’s roughly 60 percent men, and her own positive coming out experience helped as well. That loving response from parents is more common recently, but her choice to come out to them on her own is less common for the PFLAG community. Most need the platform of the small group meetings to build their courage before bringing their parents back into their lives.
Those small events give parents and children the chance to tell their story, and also serve as a fund-raising platform. While there’s some support from Chinese foundations and foreign embassies or charity events like next month’s SZUMMER PRIDE, overwhelmingly it’s individual donations that provide for an annual budget of RMB2 million.
Volunteers gather for a Pride celebration overseas (above) and for one of PFLAG China's meetings
The funding has made it possible to train volunteers to host events in those 55 cities, as well as more expensive projects like their ten national conferences and other ground-breaking work.
The very first project was a hotline, fielding calls from across China. The service’s first night, in 2008, saw 15 callers reach out for help with coming out or working out their child’s revelation. The project continues, expanded into WeChat, with roughly 1,000 reported calls in 2017.
Since then, PFLAG China has teamed up with Alibaba, Blued, and the Beijing LGBT Center to fly 10 same-sex couples to San Francisco for newly-legal weddings in 2015. Last year saw their national conference set sail, on China’s first LGBT cruise. On a five-day journey from Shanghai to Japan and back, 400 parents (of the 850 total who attended) were brought together to hear stories from women like Joan or gay men like Liu Feng, who took the opportunity of the cruise to come out to his parents for the first time. The 30-year-old PFLAG volunteer out of Hunan tells us:
“I want to be free. But being gay made me hide my identity for a long time and repressed my nature. I felt bound by invisible chains. I didn’t want to go on like this. Coming out was the only way to unlock my nature. That’s why I’m going to be brave enough to live my life.”
Liu tells us the gathering was “a good platform for my parents to come out with a positive understanding of the gay community and its difficult situation. There were many volunteers and parents to help enlighten and comfort them, so they quickly rose up from the low ebb of emotion. After being out of the closet for almost a year, my mother has followed my lead and become a new volunteer. We’ve attended many local PFLAG activities, to continue this love and power, and help more gay families out of confusion and grief.”
Nine couples married (above) and proud mothers' hold a fashion show on the 2017 cruise
But if international waters are an ideal place to work for change, Ah Qiang has led a quieter campaign of advocacy on Chinese soil. The most public advocacy was an open letter signed by more than 100 parents to the National People’s Congress in February 2015. In it, they advocate for their children and women like Joan with a call for marriage equality.
“The fact that they can’t legally marry puts them in a difficult situation when they try to adopt children, sign off [for] their partners’ [medical] operations, inherit assets from a deceased partner, or even buy a flat,” the letter reads. “Is our law trying to encourage homosexuals to marry heterosexuals? Won’t this produce bigger social problems?”
Though the letter was covered in the CCP-owned China Daily, and two female members of the NPC have been in touch, there’s no indication of an official change from the ‘Three Nos’ policy toward homosexuality in China: 不支持, 不反对, 不提倡 (don’t encourage, don't discourage, don't promote). In fact, with last year’s regulation by the China Netcasting Services Association to prohibit “displays of homosexuality” online, and Weibo’s brief ban on LGBT topics last month, the road to progressive policy changes seems a long way off indeed.
It’s a balancing act between advocating in public for social change and staying private enough to avoid trouble. But for 10 years the group has managed to maintain good relations with law enforcement and the ministries overseeing the country’s community groups.
“We openly do our work,” Ah Qiang tells us. “If we do events, we try to have contact with the local police. If it’s a sharing meeting with the parents, it’s no problem. If you do some training to empower people, we have to be a little bit more careful.”
With care as their watchword, PFLAG China steels itself for another decade of supporting families and helping them grow back together, with more strength and honesty than before.
Join PFLAG for their annual meeting next month in Shanghai. For more details visit pflag.org.cn or follow WeChat ID ‘qinyouhui002’.
[Images courtesy of PFLAG China]