Advocate describes China’s growing movement for LGBTQI rights

Ping “Hoping” Hou, foreground, is an activist for the LGBTQI community in China who was a featured speaker at OutRight Action International’s recent fundraiser. (Photo by Jack Storms courtesy OutRight Action International)

Advocate Ping “Hoping” Hou believes one of the biggest obstacles for equal rights for the LGBTQI community in China has been visibility — the acknowledgement that their lives have value.

“You were treated like you didn’t exist at all,” Ping said. “That’s very bad because we can fight with each other, but if you’re treated non-existent, it’s like, reject all your value.”

Ping was one of the keynote speakers for OutRight Action International‘s fundraiser in Seattle last week, which raised $65,000 for the organization. OutRight Action International focuses on advocacy for LGBTQI human rights outside the United States.

In 2010, Ping got her master’s in law from Shandong University and founded LesGo, which educates the public in China on the LGBTQI community.

We asked Ping a few questions about the legal rights for LGBTQI people in China, the social and family pressure to conform, and how the internet became a lifeline.

Our conversation with Ping has been edited for length.

The Seattle Globalist: Why did you decide to focus on LGBTQ rights?

It is personal experience. I was born and grew up in rural area in China. From my life experience, I feel, as a woman, so difficult to be treated equally. It’s everywhere, your opportunity to get education and how society sees you. As a girl, you are always told that it should be like this, you should not be like that. Based on my life experience, not only because how I was treated, [but also] how I witnessed and observed all those women I knew were treated. When I was a teenager, I just wanna do something to change this, it’s unfair.

When I got to college … I tried to explore myself, like rent books in the library and tried to find the information about LGBT. It kind of terrified [me] because it was described so badly. Those textbooks described homosexuality as a disease and, you know, [there was] very negative media coverage. I kind of internalized that homophobia. I didn’t know how could I survive if I want to live an honest life.

When I got to know more people, many of them [had a] very pessimistic attitude on life because they would say, “OK, now young, I could have a girlfriend or boyfriend.” But then, at a certain age, you have to enter a heterosexual marriage. I don’t want that life.

The whole thing started from this very grassroots, advocacy work, but I’m a lawyer, so I have this feeling I want to do more. I came to the U.S. to study human rights law. Grassroots advocacy is very important, but I also know the more you study, the more you understand about how to power operate and effect people’s life — like law, like policy. If we can have no recognition nowhere, even in policy, in laws, … it’s very difficult to have real change.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what the LGBTQ culture is like in China?

If we compare the U.S. and China, there are a lot of differences and also, some similarities. The first different thing [is the] U.S. had the sodomy law, but in China, we didn’t have sodomy law. The pressure’s not from how law punish you, but more about culture and family pressure. At certain age, everyone has this pressure from their parents, from their family, that you have to get married, you have to have kids. That pressure is pervasive and strong. The social and family pressure’s very real. It decides how we work in the community — not through litigation.

Even I was a lawyer, we started from organizing social events. At some point [in] China’s LGBT organization back in the 1990s , there’s some gay grassroots groups or lesbian groups just losing bunch of people. In the beginning of this century, like 2000 or 2001, this internet developed very fast and people kind of jump out from the closed mind. They have the channel … to learn more about themselves. So, people get to know each other through internet. All those things, I think, build a culture.

Around 2003, I remember some organizations emerged and delivered information around the world how those LGBT movement developed in different countries. Then we start to think about what we can do in China. Those development also influenced me, I wanted to do something, get involved, so, I became a volunteer in 2009. Many activists at my age get involved into the movement around that year.

We learned from each other and generally, until now, LGBT movement developed very fast in China. Some people may disagree with me because they may say that we still have no progress in law or policies. But, for me, I started from, like, 10 years ago. I can feel and observe how this whole thing developed because back 10 years ago, people didn’t talk about these things.

I talk to people 10 years younger than me, they [are] more impatient about the progress. I think that’s good thing because you build the momentum and now, I felt like young people, they think more about intersectional issues, like gender and sexual orientation, and also want to do more things to make more progress in law or in other area.

Do LGBTQ individuals in China actually have any legal protection?

I think, compared to other countries, we had early revelations about how transgender people, they can change their sex. But, the problem is they never change it or revised in past years. Now, it’s very outdated. That’s one of the legal demands we have now, and some activists try to advocate change for that. I said we never had a sodomy law, but we did have, in 1970s…  a crime that you could use to punish homosexuals. It’s not targeted LGBT people. Even you’re heterosexual, but you still have something not conventionally about your sexual life —  it’s not conformed to the society norms — you could be punished by that. That criminal law were revised in 1997. Some people might say that it’s treated as China’s sodomy law, but it’s not precise.

Generally, Asian culture is very diverse about sexuality. One of the reason, I think, [is of religion]. [Editor’s note: Ping later clarified that she means that the oppression in China was not based on religion, unlike the laws against sodomy in the United States.] So, that’s the legal background. The difference between China and the U.S. is the crackdown is not directly from the law.

Comparatively, we have another issue is we were treated non-existent. I feel like no matter how you screamed, the other side just didn’t see you, they just ignore you. You were treated like you didn’t exist at all. That’s very bad because we can fight with each other, but if you’re treated non-existent, it’s like, reject all your value. I think the thing we need to do is improve the visibility, find each other, and build power, or the capacity to self-empower, and then step out to educate the public. In this process, more needs — legal needs — emerge, [and] more people join to fight for what they believe in.

How do you see the LGBTQ community in China moving forward into the future?

I believe we definitely progress forward. The problem only, I think, is time, how long it will be. It’s very hard to say, “In the next 10 years, we will have marriage equality,” or something specific, but I believe that we can achieve that. I think several things we need to do. We need more people to join this. Not only LGBT people, but more allies that have this consensus about intersectional equality. I never think LGBT issue is just freedom of speech or freedom of expression. It’s always entangled with your status, your class, your economic situation, your education, your degree, your gender.

Honestly, there are also some disagreement and divergence within the community. We have different needs in this program. So, I think fundamentally important thing is people need to have conversations with each other, to share their needs. It’s very important to treat each other equally, and share those strategies and experiences, and learn from each other. That will cause solidarity.


Ping “Hoping” Hou speaks at a Seattle fundraiser for OutRight Action International, which focuses on advocacy for LGBTQI rights outside the United States. (Photo by Jack Storms courtesy OutRight Action International)

Correction: This has been updated to correct two of Ping Hou’s quotes. In the second paragraph, her quote should read, “You were treated like you didn’t exist at all.” In the second question, her quote should read: “Generally, Asian culture is very diverse about sexuality.” She also clarified after publication that the reference to religion relates to the fact that China’s law against what was called “hooliganism” was not based on religion, unlike the laws against sodomy in the United States.