Exchange Program Brings Seattle Transgender Activist to China
A transgender activist from Seattle spent 15 days in China last month, working with Chinese LGBT activists as part of a Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center-sponsored exchange program.
"I met some amazing young activists-all of them under 30," said Marsha Botzer upon her return to the United States. "Since China is China, they’re going to guide the world."
Although the numbers are hard to document, the world’s most populous country certainly has an enormous LGBT population. "Oh, millions!" exclaimed Botzer. "The largest LGBT population in the world! That’s why it’s going to make a difference."
She then laughed. "So many people-I’ll never complain about Seattle traffic again!," proclaimed Botzer.
Chinese officials asked for delegations from the United States. Botzer said they wanted people with a particular expertise, "and I went representing trans people."
According to Botzer, her delegation enjoyed complete freedom of access to the local LGBT community. "I never saw anyone watching us, never saw overt control," she said. "I could walk out of my hotel and get in a taxi and go wherever."
Botzer: Chinese Government is Not Anti-Gay
She said the Chinese government is not anti-gay, "but they also don’t want a public display of organizing."
"You couldn’t have a big conference like Gender Odyssey or Creating Change," noted Botzer.
Although Botzer did visit Beijing’s Forbidden City and other attractions, she was meeting with Chinese LGBT activists "all day long, and most nights."
"We met with our counterparts in their homes, in cafes, and in the center they created [in Beijing]," she said.
The Beijing center opened in 2008. Planning for the project began in 1998, the same year that same-sex relations were decriminalized in China.
Botzer said her Chinese colleagues face many of the same issues the American LGBT rights movement once tackled.
"How do you organize? They have no models for that," she said. "How do you talk about different sexual orientation and gender identity? How do you reach out to people? How do you distribute safe sex information, condoms?’ While the Chinese are just now grappling with these problems, their approach is thoughtful and businesslike."
LGBT Organizing Has Matured in China
Botzer noted, however, Chinese activists have what she described as a "mature" form of organizing.
"When you want to start a group, you write a formal proposal and when I finally met up with trans folks, I became friends with one young activist," she said. "When she decided to become an activist, her first move was to write a paper on what trans folks need and how to do outreach to them. They know what to do, and they’re doing it-education, being open, creating newsletters and archives, using the internet too. It’s different there; you’re not able to put up the same resources."
Botzer observed that while some issues her Chinese colleagues face are similar to those that their American counterparts encounter, others are very different.
"They have freedoms we don’t have. There’s no religious right, for example-although U.S. religious organizations have come to China," she said. "Family expectations-’matrimonial procreation’-the layers of family, and what all that means is different, and very complex."
The pressure of family expectations that every Chinese boy or girl will someday marry and have children can be almost unbearable, said Botzer. This pressure became evident during a Beijing PFLAG meeting about coming out.
"One young man just started to cry-’I can’t, I can’t, I have to get married’ and if you come out, you have a problem with your family, you have a problem at work-a lot of different things," said Botzer. "You could almost feel the weight of all that on these folks. You could see when people wanted to practice their English-they could say in English things they couldn’t say in Chinese."
Botzer said there is LGBT representation in the Chinese media that include pictures of a same-sex marriage that were shown in Jan. 2010, glossy gay images and some filmmakers, but outlets remain tightly controlled. One filmmaker produced a documentary about drag queens, but officials shut it down. "He had to find other avenues of distribution," noted Botzer.
Although she met and befriended Chinese trans activists, trans issues are not well known in China.
"There’s a general idea-so I’m told-that it’s an illness that can be cured by surgery," she said. "The government outlawed hormones in the pharmacy-I’m told, but I can’t verify this-and people desire information about what hormones can do and what they can’t do."