Hope Shines on a Silver Screen for Chinese LGBTs

In foreign embassies, basements, and even buses, the Beijing Queer Film Festival has screened for years in defiance of Chinese law. Could its success mark a turning point for LGBT equality in China?

BY Daniel Reynolds

October 29 2013 6:00 AM ET

Pictured: PFLAG-China mothers greet the crowd at a screening of Mama Rainbow.

Fan learned the art of moviemaking at the Beijing Film Academy, and not for reasons one might suspect. “I studied film because I was very bad at math in high school,” he says, laughing. At the time of the interview, he wears a T-shirt inscribed with Chinese characters. Translation? “We want to watch homosexual movies!” Actress Tilda Swinton, known for her international activism on LGBT issues, has been photographed wearing Fan's shirt.

At school Fan learned the power of his craft when he began viewing queer films with a classmate he perceived as homophobic. After several of these viewings, Fan noticed that his classmate’s attitudes about LGBT people became more positive and informed. “Film can change people’s minds,” Fan says with certainty.

After attempting to find a book about queer film in China and realizing one did not exist, Fan wrote Happy Together: Complete Record of 100 Queer Films, with the assistance of professor Cui Zi’en, who has since been fired from the Academy for being gay. Fan had also asked for assistance from a boyfriend at the time, who worked at a publishing company. But he declined, fearing the consequences of coming out at work.

Published in 2007, the book was the first of its kind in China, a catalog of the country's gay films that calls to mind Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet. Its sales also helped Fan establish himself as a filmmaker, enabling him to buy his first digital video camera. To date, he’s created several documentaries, including The Chinese Closet, which tells young people's stories of coming out to their parents, as well as Only Love, which examines the lives of transgender people in southern China.

Another major turning point in Fan’s role as an activist occurred when he gained entry to an internship program run by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. Established in 2008, the Emerging Leaders Program was originally conceived as a skills-building program, which would serve as an incubator for talented young people.

“Its entire intent is to create a situation that empowers young activists to engage in activities that would strengthen the movement in ways no one thought was possible,” Darrel Cummings, chief of staff at the center, tells The Advocate.

Thanks to the Internet, many young LGBT leaders in China have found a place to meet one another and engage in advocacy through social media. But the infrastructure that could provide this new generation with the skills they needed to advance their cause did not exist in China. To address this, the center has stepped in. Twice a year, four applicants from China are selected and brought to Los Angeles for six weeks, where they are exposed to every project and program that the center runs, including services for homeless youth, health, counseling, and HIV education. However, Cummings and Fan soon discovered that the program’s value extended to far beyond education.

“What we thought what would be a skills-building program has turned into something very different,” Cummings says. “When they come here, they are free of the day-to-day responsibilities they had in China. They’re around colleagues from China and stimulation of all kinds. And it provides them with an opportunity to think, in the future, about what the movement in China could be and what their role would be. It's a luxury that even many people here don't have."

Through the program, Fan met another intern, Ah Qiang, who is now the executive director of PFLAG-China. Qiang collaborated with Fan to create his documentary Mama Rainbow, helping him to find mothers who would come out in support of their gay and lesbian children. The partnership illustrates the value of creating a network of leaders, something that will be crucial to advancing China’s LGBT rights movement.

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