The Beijing LGBT Center

Upon exiting Liufang station on Line 13 and being greeted with the sight of Xintiandi Towers, the home of the Beijing LGBT Center (hereinafter referred to as the Center), your first thought might be, “How convenient.” In fact, this was a primary goal for the Center’s relocation. After all, accessibility is vital to the success of an aspiring community center such as this. Previously, the Center had operated for two years in an inconvenient and more expensive location near the Beijing West Railway Station, but since moving in 2010 to this location nestled in the commercial area between the northeast 2nd and 3rd ring roads, and directly served by Beijing’s light rail, the Center has flourished.

The Center’s new location is much more spacious, but that doesn’t keep it from heating up like a sauna on a summer day, especially when dozens of people pack the floor of the 40-50 sqm living room, as is often the case. When this reporter visited the center, he was lucky enough to run into Fan Popo, [the now departed] executive director of the Center, and staff member Yang Ziguang, both of whom were drenched in sweat as they scrambled to fix an old fan to ward off the heat.

Organizing Cultural Activities

The Center’s primary mission is to organize cultural activities and events for the LGBT community. According to Fan Popo, recent years have seen rapid advancement of the LGBT rights movement, and demand for social events and activities has risen correspondingly. However, most interaction in the community is still ephemeral and limited to a number of bars and clubs. It was precisely in order to address this lack of stability and unity in the LGBT population that the Center was established.

In early 2008, Aizhixing Research Center (北京爱知行研究所), Common Language (同语,a lesbian organization), Aibai Education and Cultural Center (爱白文化教育中心), and Les+ Magazine jointly founded the Beijing LGBT Center. Since then Gay Spot Magazine (《点》杂志) and China Queer Independent Films (中国酷儿独立影像) also joined as sponsors. Typically, leaders from these sponsor organizations take turns serving as the Center’s executive director, as was the case with the previous director, who came from Common Language. One month ago this responsibility passed to Fan Popo, who is arts and culture editor for Gay Spot as well as a well-known director of queer films.

Most activities at the Center—including art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, and the gay men’s chorus—are held on weekends. And since these activities often stretch until 9:00 or 10:00 PM, the Center closes on Monday and Tuesday before resuming activities on Wednesday. During the week, days are spent fundraising and handling administrative work. On Thursday evenings there is an English corner while Friday evenings are spent doing community fundraising. The Center sees a fair number of out-of-town visitors, as on one recent day when an American television crew visited as part of a report on China’s LGBT community.

Most participants in activities at the Center are LGBT, that is, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Of course, supporters from the straight community are also welcome.

Within the Center, and the activities it organizes, diversity remains a priority. When it first began operations, Yang Ziguang, a man, was the only full-time employee, and activities were disproportionately attended by gay men. However, after organizing activities specifically aimed at lesbians and recruiting lesbian volunteers, the sex ratio has slowly evened out.

In addition to gay men and lesbians, the Center also tries to cater to bisexual and transgender individuals, who themselves are minorities within the LGBT community and, as a result, face particular challenges. For them, the Center organizes film screenings, panel discussions, and group activities like “Boundless,” a discussion group for bisexual and transgender topics.

As for straight participants, Fan Popo suggests that they have a variety of reasons for coming to the Center. Some may have a particular interest in the LGBT community; others may be interested in a certain activity or movie; and others are studying at university to become social workers, and come to the center to conduct research or for an internship. Fan believes that the participation of straight individuals benefits the LGBT community by increasing the visibility of gays in mainstream society.

Currently, aside from the Center, China has two other organizations serving the LGBT community in a similar manner. One is Guangzhou’s Associated Gay/Les Campus (广州同城社区), and the other is the Aibai Chengdu LGBT Youth Center (爱白成都青年同志活动中心). However, while these two organizations specifically cater to young people, the Center serves a broader community of all ages.

Unlike grassroots organizations aimed at AIDS treatment and prevention that have become widespread throughout China, organizations serving the cultural needs of China’s LGBT community remain few and far between. In the course of holding screenings for Queer Independent Films in various cities, Fan has noticed greater cohesion in the lesbian community versus the gay community. This may reflect the absence of AIDS as a formative presence in the lesbian community, meaning that financial support is harder to come by and, thus, is more of a rallying point. By contrast, with AIDS funding relatively plentiful, the gay community has the luxury of indulging in internecine strife. The theory that lack of funds lead to compromise and greater cohesiveness may also explain the Beijing LGBT Center’s remarkably peaceful existence.

Funding Challenges

Yang Ziguang joined the Center in its infancy as his first job after graduating college. During the day the two rooms of the Center were used for various activities, and at night the smaller room served as Yang’s bedroom, his salary being too meager to support any other arrangement. In discussing his job, Yang says that his biggest satisfaction may come from the continued existence of the Center itself, which is far from a given due to lack of funding.

Recently the Center’s three primary funding sources—Aizhixing Research Center, Aibai Education and Cultural Center, and Common Language—all encountered funding difficulties of their own, meaning that this year the Center has faced even more straitened circumstances than usual.

But the show must go on, so the Center kicked its own fundraising efforts into overdrive.

The first of these efforts was the “One Yuan Drive” whereby the Center began collecting one yuan from all activity participants. Given the robust attendance for its weekend events—lectures often attract about 30 people, movie screenings anywhere from 10 to 70 people, and other activities at least a few dozen—organizing three or four events every weekend can yield a tidy profit.

The Center also began to rent out its space to other, related organizations on weekdays at below-market rates, effectively tapping into its biggest asset—its real estate. In addition to this, Fan mentioned another funding channel with considerable prospects: direct financial support from the Center’s sister organization, the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Currently, the Center also benefits from a gay night held every Friday at Alfa, a bar in Sanlitun north of the Workers’ Stadium. The bar offers patrons a 30 yuan ticket that can be redeemed for one drink. Of this sum, 10 yuan goes to the bar and 20 yuan goes to the Center. “Alfa Gay Friday”, however, is not merely a fundraising opportunity. The Center also takes advantage of the gathering of LGBT individuals to disperse educational pamphlets and to conduct surveys. Fan believes that, whether it’s the one yuan activity fee or the Friday night drink ticket, these fundraising strategies all bring home the point that the LGBT community’s greatest supporter is itself.

Operating in such a financially hostile environment, the Center has long excelled at pinching pennies. Sometimes that means handling small repairs and maintenance in-house (as with the fan at the beginning of this story), and more generally it means being chronically understaffed. The Center has enough funding for a single employee’s salary, which means that volunteers perform many functions crucial to the operation of the Center.

Indeed, volunteers are perhaps the only resource that the Center doesn’t need to worry about. The Center and its events enjoy a healthy following on—the social networking site cum movie and book database favored by China’s intellectual set—with more than 1,000 group members, and over 10,000 page hits.

Proceeding with Caution

Without a doubt, the past few years have seen great progress for China’s LGBT community, says Fan, with a flowering of LGBT organizations and greater representation in the media. Moreover, this representation has grown increasingly positive, as with the gay marriage event held at Qianmen on Valentine’s Day 2009. Similarly, five years ago very few people were even aware of the concept of “coming out,” whereas today “out” individuals are not hard to come by—various groups have put together comprehensive resources on coming out and how to deal with its challenges. Even in the conservative bastion of Chinese politics, gay rights advocates have made inroads, putting forward a bill in support of gay marriage at each meeting of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress in recent years. Though such a bill has little hope of passage, its symbolic value is considerable.

Currently, the bulk of resources available to the LGBT community are targeted at AIDS treatment and prevention. Support for cultural and social events remains sparse, as homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in the wider cultural context. Fan believes that the advancement of the LGBT rights movement depends on moving past the focus on AIDS, instead focusing on cultural, legal and social advances. His experience at the Center has made it clear, he says, that the LGBT community has made great progress in recent years, with high levels of acceptance among the generation born in the mid-1980s and later.

Fan recalls a visit by members of a Taiwanese LGBT organization and recounts their surprise that Mainland Chinese enjoyed enough political freedom to form an organization like the LGBT Center, prompting these visitors to reevaluate their own preconceived notions of China’s political and social environment.

Fan believes that progress does not follow a single path, and it cannot be measured by superficial attempts at reform. Rather, it relies on the gradual opening up of society itself.  There have been a number of cases of “official” progress in recent years. In 1997 China’s Criminal Code undesignated homosexuality as an act of “hooliganism”; in 2001 homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders’ list of mental illnesses; and in April of this year travel restrictions on carries of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases were removed from the books. The pace might not be ideal, but the impact has been undeniable.

The Beijing LGBT Center:

Xintiandi, #1 S. Xibahe Road, Tower B, Suite 2198, Chaoyang District, Beijing

The Center is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. At other times, visitors should contact or call 010-64465698

In Brief

This article profiles one of the few LGBT organizations devoted to the cultural, social and political advancement of the LGBT community. The emergence of the LGBT Center, and Aibai in Chengdu, exemplifies the emergence in China of more expressive organizations engaged in advocacy as well as service delivery.
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