In honor of Chinese New Year, we’re taking a look back in our archives to recognize how far China and Chinese Americans have come in recent years regarding LGBT acceptance. This interview with well-known activist and journalist Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, originally published on February 3, 2011, gives dot429 an insider’s perspective on the issues. Zia’s career is as diverse and dynamic as the rainbow community she belongs to, every aspect of it is colored by her striving for social equality.
Zia, as a Chinese American, female, and homosexual, has been no stranger to the challenges and marginalization that many minorities face. During the fifties and sixties, she was confronted with discrimination in a place few would expect to find it: within the Asian and African American minority communities of the civil rights movement.
According to Zia, racial minorities during the civil rights movement believed that gay people did not exist in communities of color. She explains, “If you were [gay], you would be pretty much expelled from the community,” and remembers her emotional upheaval upon being asked, “So tell us, are you a lesbian?”
“That was the beginning of a long period of being in the closet,” says Zia. “They basically told me the alternative was that I would have no home, no friends, and no community…At the time I didn’t have a girlfriend and wasn’t sure what it meant. When do you know that you’re a lesbian?”
Zia did come out of the closet later, and says, “I felt ecstatic to know that I am a lesbian!”
Over the years, Zia has continued to see and face prejudice within her own circles. She strives to bridge the divide within her different communities. Zia says, “I think we’ve made progress, but there’s definitely still stigma. There’s definitely still the feeling that you’re a minority, within a minority, within a minority. When you always find yourself within one of those minorities, you realize that there’s still a way that you can be diminished as a person and you can be expelled from yet another community.” Zia believes that strength comes from within a group and diversity should only make them stronger. In a world full of more differences than similarities, we must unite.
Zia addresses the issue of LGBT acceptance within China itself. Homosexuality was classified as a “psychiatric disorder of sexuality” until as recently as 2001, when the Chinese Psychiatric Association officially removed the entry from their diagnostic manual. Homosexuals in China have faced discrimination and even legal ramifications in the past. But Zia stresses that times are changing, and she’s optimistic about the progress of acceptance and integration of LGBT individuals within Chinese society. Even though there is still a long way to go, recent visits to China and interactions with Chinese Americans have left her hopeful.
On one particular visit to a university in Shanghai, Zia delivered a lecture on LGBT issues and same sex marriage in the United States. She asked the students, “How do you think LGBT people are treated in China?” The responses were overwhelming, Zia explains. “They said their parents would never accept this.”
However, when the students were asked how they would feel as parents of LGBT children, they said they would be fine with it. This proves that China is experiencing a generational shift with regards to LGBT acceptance. Zia says, “We’re seeing an entire new generation of China. To them, it is not an issue. They really just want their families to be happy. They felt bad about the discrimination they saw against LGBT individuals in China.”
While in Shanghai, Zia visited a lesbian community center that had an office, a gathering center, and a rainbow flag and produces a journal with writings for lesbians. Even the Chinese press was showing signs of change—according to Zia, it has started covering more LGBT topics in the news.
Zia believes the Chinese homosexual community has learned to adapt to survive within the ambiguous climate of their surroundings. She says, “There’s a certain freedom under the radar for queer people in China. They are able to move under that radar pretty well. It’s pretty amazing. People are able to find each other. People are married—clearly, not married in that civil sense, but they had their own ceremonies, the way we have commitment ceremonies. I know people who have moved in together, and I’ve met some couples who have actually bought apartments together. So there’s all of that going on in China. And you know once the genies out of the bottle, you can’t put it back in.”
China continues to evolve in its acceptance of the LGBT community. Zia eloquently points out, “Everything we do, every pebble we throw in the pond, does have a ripple effect. People do change, and the world changes. It might be one step at a time, but what we do, what we say, and how we are really does make a difference. In big ways and small ways, they all add up.”
Originally published on February 3, 2011.