The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Emerging Leaders Program—an international leadership development program offered in collaboration with the Chinese organization Aibai and partly funded by the Open Society Foundations (OSF)—welcomes trailblazing activists from China, where they are at the forefront of their country’s LGBT movement. At the Center, they complete intensive internships that grow and hone their activism skills. This fall, four visiting interns traveled along with Center staff members to Minnesota, where they worked alongside other LGBT and allied activists to defeat Amendment 1, which would have constitutionally defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Guo “Joe” Ziyang penned this op-ed about his experience, which was also documented in the video above.
At the end of October 2012, I was very fortunate to come to Los Angeles and participate in an LGBT leadership training program. We arrived amid the general election season in the U.S. and could feel the strong political atmosphere everywhere.
To fight for our rights, activists in China face the possibility of being arrested and having activities canceled. We do not have the opportunity to dialogue with the government; we do not have freedom of speech; we cannot go onto the street to protest or voice our demands; and we cannot freely organize activities. Because of this, I was very curious as to what the struggle for rights is like in a democratic country.
During the five-week program, we had the opportunity to learn about the U.S. electoral process and join the Center’s effort in fighting the anti-LGBT measure Amendment 1 in Minnesota. Prior to going to Minnesota, we learned that since 1998 the LGBT community and our allies have lost in elections on LGBT ballot measures more than 30 times. I realized that even in a democracy, the fight for equal right is hard.
When we arrived in Minnesota, I was surprised by the huge team of thousands of volunteers, from seniors in their 70s to kids 7-or 8-years-old. Everyone worked very hard every day. After I worked the phone lines, went door to door to talk to people about the measure, and knocked on dorm room doors to get out the vote, I understood where everyone’s enthusiasm came from. Everyone was aware of his or her rights as a citizen, and each person knew that to change society and to gain rights requires everyone to work together to make our voices heard. I think this sense of civic responsibility is what is lacking in China today.
A few things stayed in my mind. One day as we walked the street door to door, a woman walked by us. She saw the “Vote No” signs in our hands and said, “I will vote yes.” At that moment, I felt the beauty of a democracy: everyone has the freedom to speak their mind, and in this everyone is equal.
The day of the election was a rainy winter day, and we stood on a very cold college campus. Many people who walked by gave us high fives, but not everyone was supportive. We encountered five groups of Chinese students and asked them to help us. Unfortunately, they all reacted negatively. One couple said, “Standing outside on a day like this to support homosexuals—are you guys psychotic?” This made me think that in China, there are many people who want democracy, but they don’t know that democracy requires everyone’s participation.
I started working for LGBT rights since I was 17. I am very much aware that the progress we have made in China on LGBT rights came as the result of many people’s hard work. Some people naively believe that gays in the U.S. enjoy a great sense of freedom and that this came from the government. The experience in Minnesota let me see firsthand how the American LGBT community has fought and continues to fight for equality.
Finally, I was very happy that we won, and we won big! The excitement that I felt will be with me for a long time. We won’t win every time, but each win requires effort. After losing 32 times, we not only successfully defeated a constitutional amendment for the first time, but three states approved same-sex marriage by voter referendums. We four interns from China not only witnessed history being made, we were part of the history-making. I believe the hard struggle in China will produce result worthy of the effort as well. The things we learned, such as organizing, fundraising, and advocating in various ways, are things we cannot learn from books. These will be precious skills for the future of the Chinese LGBT movement.
Democracy is wild, but I love this kind of wildness!
GUO ZIYAND is the director of the Beijing Zuoyou Health Counseling Center.