Homosexuality is a sensitive word at Chinese universities. Even though these institutions are the frontline of gay liberation in China, administrators attempt to conceal any mention of LGBT issues. On campuses, many LGBT groups have found they can't register as legitimate societies. They try to maintain their presence, spread knowledge and seek equality all without any legal standing. In order to survive and develop, they must be inventive and cautious.
Members of Rainbow Group, an LGBT organization set up without official approval at Sun Yat-Sen University in 2012, unfold a rainbow flag in front of the Guangdong Science Center on May 17. Photo: Courtesy of Ah Shan
Over the past two years, they have written to more than 100 presidents of leading Chinese universities, calling on them to show their concern for gay students and to lift the restrictions LGBT societies face on campuses. Even though they have received no replies, they haven't stopped.
They are student volunteers with the Tongai (which can be translated to "same-sex love" in English) Network, an LGBT rights organization based in Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province.
Xiang Xiaohan, leader of the organization, said that they plan to send letters to the presidents again on National Teacher's Day this year. "Without the recognition of universities, the campus groups are illegal, and their activities can be easily restricted," Xiang told the Global Times.
There are no rules explicitly banning LGBT organizations from campuses, but administrators rarely allow them to register and acquire legal standing.
Back in 2006, Sun Yat-Sen University (SYSU) in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province approved the registration of the first LGBT students' union on the Chinese mainland. But the university revoked its status the following year.
Even without official approval, however, many LGBT groups have been established on campuses.
"The presence of these societies on campuses is significant as college students will be backbone of the country after graduation," Xiang said. He believes if students have a positive view of LGBT people, then this will have a huge impact on society's views in the long run.Registration roadblock
But the societies' attempts to hold events often meet barriers due to their "illegal identity."
"Without registering, we are not allowed to put up banners, booths or posters on campus like other societies," Shen Jiayi, director of HOMOSCU, a homosexual association at a university in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province told the Global Times.
According to him, all societies at his university need to register at the Students' Association Union which is under the direct guidance of the university's Communist Youth League Committee. One of the necessary conditions for registering is acquiring a faculty member to be the group's "instructor."
"We failed to find a teacher who would be our instructor. Besides, even if we meet all the conditions, we cannot obtain the youth league's approval," Shen said.
The leader of the Rainbow Group that was set up without official approval at SYSU in 2012, who prefers to be called Sun, her English name, said they have also met obstructions. As an "illegal" group, it's hard for them to rent venues to hold activities, she revealed.
Geng Le, CEO of China's largest gay website danlan.org and the gay social networking app "Blued," said the absence of government statements regarding LGBT people contributes to the situation facing LGBT associations on campuses.
"I have talked with government officials who said it's too early for the government to publicly recognize these groups as society's homophobia is still too ingrained," he noted.
Off campuses, the civil affairs authorities also have not allowed any LGBT organizations to officially register as NGOs. Xiang tried to register the Tongai Network last year. But the civil affairs department of Hunan Province rejected his application saying "there is no legal basis for establishing a homosexual organization," and "homosexuality is against traditional Chinese culture and morality."
Geng said his website was repeatedly forced to close down by police until he shook hands with Chinese premier Li Keqiang
at an AIDS-prevention meeting in December in Beijing.
Fearful of the possible reactions of student's parents, public opinion and social stability, universities cannot break this taboo, he added.
Recently, during a graduation ceremony at SYSU, university president Luo Jun embraced Wan Qing, a 22-year-old lesbian who came out at the ceremony.
The president's move impressed the LGBT community in China, but the university quickly issued a ban forbidding students from discussing the case. Campus abuse
Wan Qing is lucky that the head of her university was willing to show his support, but the same is not for some students at other universities.
Xiaowei, 20, a junior at a university in Northeast China, was the president of his school's student union. But when his homosexuality was discovered by university officials, he was expelled from the Party. The university also informed his parents, who had been in the dark about Xiaowei's sexuality, according to a 2012 report by the Aibai Culture and Education Center, a non-profit organization that helps LGBT people.
He Miao, a student leader at Peking University in Beijing, had a similar experience. He came out and was dismissed from his post at the student union and the administration even threatened to force him to quit school, according to an article published December last year by Cijian, the fortnightly newspaper of the Peking University Student Union. Eventually, He cut his links to the LGBT group, the article said.
Geng said university administrators often hold old-fashioned and backward views.
"Many university leaders were born in a different time and they haven't got proper knowledge of this group of people and can't accept them," Geng told the Global Times.
In reality, some professors and many textbooks still define homosexuality as "abnormal" or as a "mental illness."
Xiang Xiaohan with the Tongai Network said they have also sent letters to many higher learning institutes, asking them to modify textbooks and to run courses on sex and gender.
According to a 2012 report by the Aibai Center which polled 421 students, the majority of whom identified themselves as homosexuals, 77 percent said they had suffered bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender identity on campus.
A student from HOMOSCU said the association helped him to live happily despite this. "Before, I cautiously covered up my homosexuality in order to prevent others from despising me. After I joined the group, I found lots of people like me. They give me the courage to step out of the shadows," the student said.Avoiding obstructions
Most universities have their own LGBT groups, albeit without official endorsement, and they organize lectures, gatherings and other activities online and offline. In order to survive they sometimes need to compromise or take unconventional measures.
A group of students at Peking University announced at the end of last year the establishment of PKUDRA, an LGBT association. But it soon changed its name to avoid controversy from the Peking University Multi-gender Research Association to the Yiheyuan Road Multi-gender Research Association. Yiheyuan Road is the location of Peking University campus.
Sun from SYSU said that when making a poster or slogan, they have to wrack their brains to think of phrases which contain no sensitive words but also have a distinct theme. When holding activities, they need to prepare several back-up plans in case of disruption by security guards or officials.
Sun said the university unsurprisingly rejected their request to hold an event on the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia that falls on May 17. But they had a plan B. On that day, group members and volunteers successfully unfurled a rainbow flag as large as a tennis court in front of the university's sports stadium and two other venues. Fearing that the event would be shut down by university authorities, they organized the event as a flash mob which lasted only a few minutes.
HOMOSCU holds mostly low-profile activities, a factor which its director Shen Jiayi is convinced has contributed to the university allowing it to continue existing.
"For 10 years, the organization has never been told to close. The LGBT section of the university's official student forum has also been established," Shen said.
He said while putting on larger promotional activities, they either hold them under other guises such as AIDS-prevention or in cooperation with other societies. But after cooperating with another society to distribute condoms and safe sex leaflets, he heard that the society's head was allegedly warned by supervisors against cooperating with his group.
With the spread of social media, campus LGBT groups have found another way to spread their message. Many of them have launched accounts on Renren, Weibo or WeChat, including the Sex and Gender Study Community of Renmin University of China, PKUDRA and the Voice of Rainbow at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Geng Le said his website has recently launched a campaign to help build LGBT associations at colleges and universities, mainly offering guidance on how to write a group constitution, establish rules and conduct activities.
"We will offer technical guidance, especially on how to make sure their activities are acceptable to university authorities," Geng said, for example not using homosexual in their names or themes and how to deal with the university's obstructions.
According to a survey conducted by Pan Suiming, a well-known sexologist from Renmin University of China, 11.4 percent of college students display homosexual tendencies. The official statistics show that China has a total of 35 million junior college students, undergraduates and Master's candidates, which means there are an estimated 4 million people that display homosexual tendencies on campuses.
But due to societal conservatism, many LGBT students live in the dark about their own orientations. Others seek an outlet for their feelings that is easy to hide. They pursue one night stands online and never come out publicly.
But this, combined with insufficient knowledge of safe sex, increases the risk of the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. MSM (men that have sex with men) are a group at high risk of HIV/AIDS infections in China.
"It will take time for China to accept this group of people and legalize their marriage," said Geng, who realized he was gay not long after graduating from a police academy. But he has noticed that universities are making progress in being inclusive. "This year, I have already been invited to six universities to give lectures."Newspaper headline: No pride on campus