Landmark LGBTQ+ Center Closes Amid State Push For Straight Marriage

The shuttering of the Beijing LGBT Center marks the latest setback for China’s queer community. In a terse statement published to WeChat, the Center offered no explanation for its sudden closure beyond force majeure. Founded in 2008, the Center had been a landmark initiative to provide community space, medical advice, and cultural programming for the capital’s sexual and gender minorities. The Center’s unexplained demise is further evidence of the state’s apparent turn against the LGBTQ+ community, following the censorship of queer media platforms, the disciplining of university students for handing out rainbow flags, state media’s recent use of the phrase “westernized lifestyle” as a euphemism for lesbianism, and a media regulatory body’s insulting criticisms of gender non-conforming men. The fact that the closure was announced on the eve of May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia made the loss all the more poignant. At The China Project, Zhao Yuanyuan reported on international and domestic reactions to the Center’s closing

“The Center was so many things: a hub, a refuge, a flagship, a festival,” Darius Longarino, a research scholar at the Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai Center, who has worked extensively with experts in China seeking to advance LGBTQ rights, told The China Project. “They provided services to the community like mental health counseling and HIV testing and ran myriad activities like film screenings, exhibitions, English corners, parties, and discussion groups on coming out and intimacy — and so much more.”

[…] “The Center has been under constant scrutiny and surveillance for its work, but because it’s been in operation for a long time and had been actively negotiating with the authorities, it still managed to maintain its major programs. As I know, more and more of its activities were affected and forced to stop recently,” [Stephanie Yingyi Wang, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at St. Lawrence University] said. “I can only say that this closure seems inevitable in the long run, but I still admire how long the Center has stood up against immense pressure and remained to be the beacon for many.”

[…] On Weibo, the news of its sudden shutdown has triggered an outpouring of sadness and reminiscences about its importance to the community. “Ten years ago when I just graduated from school, I achieved self-acceptance here. Thank you and I hope future generations of sexual and gender minorities can still find their organization,” a longtime fan wrote on the Center’s Weibo page. “We don’t say goodbye. We say ‘see you down the road,’” a Weibo user who used to volunteer at the Center commented. [Source]

Darius Longarino, the Yale Law School research scholar quoted above, posted a thread to Twitter expanding on the Center’s importance: 

The exact reason for the Center’s closure remains unclear. A former volunteer told Bloomberg that it was the result of a long-term pressure campaign from a number of actors, including the Center’s neighbors. The Center is but one of many LGBTQ+ organizations to be forced to shut down. In at least one case, the Chinese government has detained LGBTQ+ leaders and forced them to close their groups as a precondition of release. Huizong Wu at the Associated Press:

“They are not the first group, nor are they the largest, but because Beijing LGBT Center was in Beijing, it represented China’s LGBT movement,” said one Chinese activist who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety. “In our political, economic and cultural center, to have this type of organization. It was a symbol of the LGBT movement’s presence.”

[…] The well-known group called LGBT Rights Advocacy China, which brought strategic lawsuits to push for policy change and expanding rights, closed down in 2021. The group’s founder was detained and the organization’s end was a condition of his release, according to an activist close to the group who was previously based in China but has since relocated abroad. He declined to be named out of fear of government retribution toward family in China.

[…] “Their shutdown makes one feel very helpless. As groups large and small shut down or stop hosting events, there’s no longer a place where one can see hope,” said another Chinese activist who requested anonymity for fear of government retribution. [Source]

On the same day the Center was shut down, Taiwan’s legislature passed an amendment allowing same-sex couples to adopt children. The stark contrast fueled debate on Weibo: “Now we can only wish Taiwan will be free forever,” one user wrote. Some conservative mainland commentators hailed the Center’s closure as a victory over Western influence.

While cracking down on LGBTQ+ rights, the state has pushed a heteronormative natalist policy it hopes can stave off negative economic consequences from its falling population. India has overtaken China in total population, marking the first time since the U.N. began tracking the statistic in 1950 that China has not been the world’s most populous country. The government hopes to boost births after decades of mandating that most couples only have one child, an initiative that has been met with skepticism. In May, the nominally independent China Family Planning Association announced a “pilot project” across 20 cities to create a “New Era Marriage and Childbearing Culture,” in an effort to encourage couples to have more children. From state media outlet Global Times: 

The projects will focus on tasks including promoting marrying and having children at appropriate ages, encouraging parents to share child-rearing responsibilities, and curbing high “bride prices” and other outdated customs, said association officials during an event held in Guangzhou, South China’s Guangdong Province on Thursday. The cities include Guangzhou and Handan in North China’s Hebei Province. 

[…] “The society needs to guide young people more on the concept of marriage and childbirth, and encourage young people to get married and have children,” [independent demographer He Yafu] said.

Indeed, efforts to improve society’s marriage culture and environment will hedge against the possible negative effects of some of the demographic downturn, analysts noted. [Source]

Most of the state’s efforts to increase marriage and childbearing target women and put the onus of population decline on them. A small town in southeast China had unmarried women sign a pledge to reject high “bride prices,” a traditional cash gift to a potential wife’s family as a precondition for engagement. The government blames exorbitant bride prices, which can reach $50,000, for low marriage rates in rural areas. Other local governments have come up with similarly eccentric schemes to increase birth and marriage rates. In Hebei, officials had a dance troupe bang pots and drums while chanting such slogans as “Giving birth is an important part of life!” One rural county in Hunan province came up with “Operation Bed Warming,” an initiative that pressured local women to marry local men, rather than looking for potential partners in distant urban areas. Jilin has begun allowing single women access to in vitro fertilization, a policy that members of a national political advisory body have recommended be expanded nationwide. In January, Sichuan began allowing unmarried couples to legally add their children to their household registration. A number of private Chinese companies have begun offering women subsidies to freeze their eggs, thus allowing them to delay pregnancy until they so choose. 

For many Chinese women, these policies do not address their fundamental concerns about childbirth, namely that traditional social mores will bind them to the home and preclude them from pursuing personal and professional opportunities. One woman told Al Jazeera: “I don’t want my life to only be about taking care of kids, doing housework and taking care of my husband’s parents when they get old, but I feel like many families expect that from a married woman in China.” The government’s campaign to push marriage and childrearing has instead birthed a highly sardonic self-appellation among Chinese women: “huminerals,” a term for people destined to be relentlessly exploited until they’re tossed onto the slag heap of history. 

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