During our trip we spoke with LGBT community advocates about their experiences building relationships and influencing policy in Beijing. We met with an LGBT advocacy organization in Beijing, and we learned about the constraints that these groups face, how they manage to still to effectively provide services in the community, and how they navigate their political environment.
The organization we visited had windows dressed with cheerful rainbow curtains, marking their office as a safe space. We learned that safe spaces for the LGBT community in Beijing are rare, and that a primary service that these organizations provide are meeting zones where members of the LGBT community can freely and openly interact and find support. Building safe spaces is also a challenge online. We learned that many advocates prefer to use “more secure” networks like Whatsapp and Facebook, rather than Wechat, which is government-monitored, for their communications and outreach.
Relationship-building is an important component of NGO culture in China, and LGBT groups in China also have to be strategic in developing their partnerships. These outward-facing networks are critically important for LGBT-advocacy in China because LGBT organizations are relatively isolated from collaboration with mainstream NGO communities. Many service organizations that target vulnerable populations such as the elderly are apprehensive about partnering with LGBT NGOs, which are largely unregistered. LGBT NGOs also face resource constraints and limited access to government funding (government funding is generally limited to HIV prevention work rather than LGBT community support), so mainstream, well-resourced community service NGOs have no obvious incentive to partner with LGBT organizations.
One of the biggest obstacles to LGBT members of Chinese society is public perception. In China, homosexuality is still classified as a psychological pathology by medical professionals (including being listed as such in the Chinese equivalent to the DSM listings). Therefore building relationships with those who can dispel these myths with authority, mainly psychological associations and prominent psychologists outside of China, has been a key tactic that LGBT groups in China use. These outside scholars and medical professionals are able to use their influence to lobby the Chinese government better than Chinese grassroots organizations could on their own.
In China, the LGBT community faces many challenges to acceptance in mainstream society. The groups that provide services on their behalf also face obstacles in steering their work. However, the obstacles that these organizations face should not deflect away from the important work that they are doing for the LGBT communities they serve, and they should be applauded for their ingenuity and ability to navigate these challenges with relative ease.