Why China’s LGBT hide their identities at Lunar New Year

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A group of LGBT protesters in ChinaImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Despite more representation in China, some LGBT people still struggle for acceptance

China is marking the annual Lunar New Year holiday, which for most people means getting together with family and loved ones.

This year, the celebrations have been overshadowed by the new virus sweeping the country, which has meant many people won't or can't travel home.

But some members of China's LGBT community have always dreaded the holiday period, because going home means being confronted with unwelcome questions.

"For some parents, it's the end of the world when their children are queer," said Fan Popo, a filmmaker, writer and activist from Shandong, earlier this week.

"I am already seeing people complaining when they get home," he told the BBC earlier this week.

"They are being asked by family members about when they are getting married."

Homosexuality has been legal in China for more than two decades and the Chinese Society of Psychiatry stopped classifying it as a mental disorder in 2001.

But same-sex marriage is not recognised, and some LGBT people still struggle for acceptance, especially when it comes to close family members with traditional expectations.

A report by the United Nations Development Programme in 2016 found no more than 15% of LGBT people in China come out to their close family members.

"Some people who have already come out successfully are proud," Xie Xiao, a member of CINEMQ, a queer cinema collective based in Shanghai, told the BBC.

"Meanwhile some people are scared to death of whether their family members know anything about their sexuality."

Big companies cash in with support

In recent years a number of big companies have shown their support for the LGBT community in China - and for the potential market the community offers.

In 2015, e-commerce giant Alibaba staged a promotional event to send seven same-sex couples to the US so that they could marry. And Nike has been known to sponsor T-shirts at the Shanghai Pride run.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A number of businesses including Nike have shared their support for the LGBTQ+ community in recent years

Tim Hildebrandt, associate professor at London School of Economics' Department of Social Policy, said Chinese companies were waking up to the LGBT market in the same way the West has.

"Chasing the pink yuan is behind the positive attention that has been paid to LGBT people. Whether you believe that making money off gay people is inherently a good thing, it certainly has led to greater recognition," he told the BBC.

Earlier this month Tmall, another shopping website run by Alibaba, released a Lunar New Year advert alluding to a same-sex couple.

In the video, a man is seen bringing another man to visit his family home for a new year dinner. When Kelvin is handed a bowl of soup by the other man's father, he replies "Thanks Dad" in a way that married people address their in-laws.

In the same way that Christmas and the Super Bowl are huge marketing platforms in the West, Lunar New Year ads spots are hugely influential, so the Tmall ad had a significant public reaction.

The ad went viral, and the responses on social media were overwhelmingly positive.

But Mr Fan said he saw it more as a "consumer trap" than genuine progress.

"It's not about LGBT issues. They know we have money and they want to take our money. We have no rights but our money is taken away by these companies," he said.

"I'm more interested in seeing poor LGBT people getting their rights and homeless transgender people finding a way to survive."

Media caption,

What is Chinese New Year?

However Mr Xie is more optimistic about the ad.

"I think it's important for people to see that it's showing a gay couple. At least there is one, we have to cherish that."

He added that the advert shows even the older generations that "there are other options".

And the public is quick to let companies know when they've got it wrong.

When a copycat version of popular Netflix show makeover Queer Eye was released in China recently, it was revealed that one major element had changed - there was not a single LGBT host.

People rushed to social media to complain.

"If you want to copy Queer Eye, at least be more inclusive," says Mr Xie. "The Chinese show is not queer enough. On Douban [a review website], people were talking about it and thinking what a shame."

Even Queer Eye host Bobby Berk waded in, calling it "disappointing".

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Support for same-sex marriage

As China becomes more open about homosexuality, there have been growing calls for same-sex marriage to be legally recognised.

Last December a spokesperson from National People's Congress' legislative affairs commission said introducing same-sex marriage was one of the most frequent requests from Chinese people.

That rare move gave hope to campaigners that changes in the law could be coming and also inspired a wave of social media debate.

One woman said in a post on Chinese microblogging site Weibo: "There are too many people who cannot understand and tolerate this group and only when the country recognises it, will more people accept it."

Media caption,

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage

"Since the legalisation of same-sex marriages in China will not hurt anyone, but [the current situation] will hurt same-sex couples who truly love each other, then the legalisation of same-sex marriages in China should be promoted," another female user said.

Mr Hildebrandt, however, remains cautious. He warned against paying too much attention to social media comments, which might not accurately portray public sentiment.

"It reflects the very effective efforts of the LGBT activist community in China to mobilise their supporters to participate," he said.

But despite increasing support, the Lunar New Year remains a stressful time for some LGBT people on their visits home.

"I came out about ten years ago during Chinese new year," said Mr Fan. "It was not the best time but when you have so much pressure, it's hard to hide."