Debating Diversity: Beijing Youth Attend Summer Lectures on Feminism, LGBT and Queer

August 13, 2015
By Wang XiaonanEditor: Mable Wang

Whenever feminism, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), and queer (an umbrella term for non-heterosexual gender minorities) occur simultaneously, there will likely be a strong exchange of words.

One summer night, as claps of thunder and flashes of lightening flew across the sky, forecasters were predicting yet further showers that had been moistening Beijing during the past suffocating days. Dozens of youngsters sat and stood around in the glow of candlelight, fully absorbed in a heated debate on the top storey of a tall residential compound in Wudaokou, a popular student hangout in the northwest of the city.

They were discussing some of the most marginalized topics in Chinese society — the current state of feminism in Chinese society and related issues around gender identity and equal rights. In the historical course of gender rights worldwide, gays and lesbians' campaigns commenced a little later than women's movements. Despite the collaboration of the two factions for a certain period of time, they have since demonstrated huge differences in theories, propositions and strategies.

Feminism is not a new word in China as its proponents have been trying to alter the social construction of gender through political struggle to achieve gender equality for some time. However, feminist movements in China have solicited wide controversy due to some radical and aggressive ideas and conducts in recent years.

Those in the LGBT community have also been struggling against backward conceptions, though almost powerlessly. The Supreme Court's ruling in the U.S.  that same-sex marriage is a legal right in the country has again given rise to further arguments on the necessity of same-sex marriage in China.

Queer theory, a post-structuralist discourse that emerged out of queer and women studies, was born from the heated disputes of the early 1990s. Originally meant to overthrow the conventional dual division of gender and sexual orientation, it has drawn strong criticism from the public, not least from gay rights advocates.

Unique Views of Guests

Three guests gave lectures surrounding these somewhat taboo topics at the salon. Ms. Wang from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in China shared pictures and videos of female bodies that are slim, pretty and sexy in the eyes of most people. She meant to raise a question: are women taught to be like this or are they born this way? She also quoted French writer Simone de Beauvoir as saying, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."

Ms. Lin, a student from China Central Academy of Fine Arts, focused on artworks created by contemporary women and talked about the relationship between feminism and art. She displayed many famous women artists' works in her presentation, including those by avant-garde sculptor Xiang Jing. It should be noted that art perceived in women's eyes tends to be soft and gentle, she said, and we should refrain from seeing it with prejudice.

According to her, many of those in the international gay community have turned a blind eye to queer issues after being endowed with the right to marriage. Feminists have gradually isolated themselves to "flowers in a vase" during the grander process of human emancipation, she said.

Professor Wu Qiang from the Department of Sociology of Tsinghua University was also present and conveyed his own views. According to him, though women have gained certain rights through waves of feminist movements, they are still in a weak status in a male-dominated society. There is no denying that women have long been at a disadvantage in the political realm.

London-based political and cultural weekly magazine The New Statesmen put on its July 16 cover an image showing Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, Theresa May, the UK's Home Secretary, and the British Labor Party politician Liz Kendall crowding around a ballot box in a crib. It illustrates an article entitled "The Motherhood Trap" which states, "Look around the top of politics and it seems like a wonderful time to be a woman… But these eye-catching facts conceal an uncomfortable truth: remarkably high proportions of the most successful women in politics are childless."

Wu suggested that feminists, LGBTs and queers make concerted efforts to forge a political coalition instead of attacking each other, they should seek their due rights and interests together. He thought it to be an effective way for these disadvantaged groups to fight for equality with men.

Interested Audiences

This open-ended discussion neither drew any firm conclusion nor witnessed grapples of different attitudes and positions. The audiences held their breath to listen attentively and no one played with smart phones, which was indeed a sight rarely seen in this modernized but increasingly distracted society. Participants were tolerant toward others' views and shared their own with facts and logic.

The rights and interests of LGBT groups are relatively marginal issues even in Beijing, the cultural center of China. The issues important to queers are even further from the center of debate. Internet-related businesses are among today's hot topics. Just across the street is China's famous technology hub Zhongguancun, where almost every business start-up or investment attracts hundreds of passionate participants. Hardly anyone can ever imagine the little-touched-upon issues about gender minorities could draw a roomful of young people together.

Mr. Zhao, an information technology engineer, came here just because he was curious about what is going on around him. He wonders what his peers are thinking, doing and heeding and fears falling behind in this transient era.

Xiaoyu, a 20-something man with a ready smile from UNDP, thought Chinese society has been holding a more tolerant attitude toward LGBTs than the West. "Therefore we don't have to prompt people to show more understanding of LGBTs through legislation, as they do in the U.S. They have a different culture. Most of the general public in China  seems to be tolerant with LGBTs."

Wu Xiaoyan, a junior student in materials science from Beijing Forestry University, took notes seriously through the whole session. When asked about her feelings about gender equality in present-day China, she said there was still immense discrimination against females in many aspects, notably in the unsparingly competitive job market. "I have long since planned to apply for another major in postgraduate study because girls can hardly find proper occupations in the paper-making realm after graduation."

However, she thought the public should refrain from over-stressing gender discrimination in society because most women are also quite strict with themselves to be independent, and not to pander to men. "Many girls around me keep exercising and are regularly doing skin care for better appearance, which could add to their inner beauty, too."

Indeed, this is what goes beyond feminism and sometimes we should avoid narrowing its definition.

The discussion was ongoing. The room of no more than 30 square meters was filled with many enthusiastic young minds and the air smelled a little stuffy. Against the flickering lights, a collision and fusion of ideas were continuing in this muggy, summer night.

The article was written by Women of China reporter Wang Xiaonan, based on interviews during a salon on feminism and gender minorities in Beijing's Wudaokou.

(Women of China)


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