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 5:00 AM ET

Pictured: Popo Fan, director of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, in red, talks to the audience on closing night.

The value of this network recently hit home for Cummings. Earlier this year the center organized a retreat for the program’s graduates, which number around 40 to date, to instruct them in more advanced skills. During the retreat one of the members from China approached Cummings with a startling revelation.

“Do you realize you have 80 percentage of the LGBT leadership in this room?” he told Cummings, who realized this figure may be close to accurate.

“They don’t know that they’re the people that the history books are going to write about,” says Cummings, who points to an AIDS walk on the Great Wall of China and a translation of Kate Bornstein's trans manifesto Gender Outlaw as other significant accomplishments of the program's graduates. "One of them is the Harvey Milk. One of them is the Barbara Gittings," he says. "They don’t appreciate the sacrifice they’re making. There’s not one of these people who doesn’t have a government dossier a foot thick. It’s not like Popo is going to decide to work for the Chinese National Bank and be able to get a job. They’ve forfeited these kinds of opportunities, so they’re even more remarkable.”

The obstacles faced by this generation are daunting but not insurmountable, Cummings says. Many of them are complicated by China’s strong focus on family. Honor and the necessity of procreation have cast LGBT people as rebels within their families.

“Family is a really big issue,” Fan says. “In China, we think gays and lesbians can’t get married because it’s hard to get kids. That means, if you are gay or lesbian, then you won’t pass the family name on."

“The family unit will never kick children out,” says Fan, who says that homelessness among LGBT youth, a significant problem in the United States, is not a major issue in China. However, other problems emerge. “They might lock their son or daughter at home and not let him or her go out,” he says, pointing to physical abuse from family members and suicide as other consequences.

Media censorship remains another constant impediment. Social media websites like YouTube and Twitter are not accessible. Facebook was blocked in 2009 after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising prompted a flurry of postings that the government deemed dangerous.

“In Communism, people have the same purpose,” Fan says. “They are going in the same direction. But if you promote diversity, then all the people go to different directions. Then it’s not OK for the government.”

This censorship is often arbitrary. A website or a film will be prohibited while a similar project will be passed over. Fan points to a British television series with gay characters that was allowed to air in China — the rationale being that, because it a science fiction series set in space, the characters were far enough removed from Earth and humanity to not be political.

“There is no visible line because the rules are not open to the public,” Fan says. “There are not even rules. There are people who censor, who say this is OK or not OK.”

In this environment, is equality for China’s LGBT population possible? Fan believes the government will have to undergo a systemic overhaul before such a development could take place.

“If we really want to have equal rights for the LGBT movement, we should unite in some other civil society movement together to break the whole society system. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible for you to change the policy, because the government would never listen to you,” Fan says. “LGBT rights won’t happen separately from democracy.”

Cummings, however, is more optimistic about the changes Fan and his colleagues can effect in the near future.

“Things are changing so fast in China that I think everything is on the table. What everybody said five years ago was impossible to do in China, these people have done, and then some," he says. "I would not underestimate their ability to achieve.”

In the meantime, Fan is already creating his next documentary, while planning for the seventh edition of the Beijing Queer Film Festival, scheduled for 2015. The show, after all, must go on.

Below, see the trailer for Popo Fan's Mama Rainbow.

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