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    The Challenges of Leading an LGBT Student Society in China

    Student group head finds it difficult to openly debate gender and sexuality issues on campus, despite growing interest among peers.

    In recent years, as Chinese attitudes surrounding sex have continued to evolve and people have become increasingly tolerant of sexual minorities, a wave of student groups relating to gender and sexuality have sprung up on Chinese campuses — “like bamboo shoots after a downpour,” as the popular Chinese idiom goes.

    Of these, the Z Society at my university might be one of the oldest. Established in 2005, the Z Society focuses on issues pertaining to feminism and sexual minorities. Our goal is to make the campus — and even society as a whole — more egalitarian, harmonious, and tolerant. Since its inception, the Z Society has grown from a handful of students into a prominent organization of more than 300 members whose influence extends well beyond the campus. That said, we still face a number of challenges and a great deal of resistance.

    As a student organization, the Z Society needs to express its views and organize events. In the era of social media, we are able to use microblogging site Weibo and messaging app WeChat to promote our work and build influence in the community. Our official WeChat account has over 7,000 followers, and each post is viewed upward of 1,000 times, making us one of the most popular WeChat accounts at our university.

    In addition to providing details about our events, our WeChat account also features articles that propound our principles and views. Our offerings include reports from the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia; posts concerning transgender issues; and student-submitted articles that examine social issues from the perspective of gender.

    Although our articles are not subject to public criticism, it is always difficult to express ourselves as openly as we wish. For example, my university asked us to remove an article about Qiu Bai — the pseudonym of a lesbian student activist at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou — and the lawsuit she filed against the Ministry of Education for publishing homophobic content in its textbooks. Our school also demanded that we delete an article in which we criticized the homophobic content of a university lecture on staying healthy during a compulsory military service course. 

    But offline, too, we have to act discreetly, particularly in terms of the events we host. In the last few years, we have invited eminent scholars to give lectures on the subject of homosexuality. These talks have been a roaring success, with students from across the city filling lecture halls to maximum capacity.

    However, when we invited external experts to speak on feminism or homosexuality recently, the school blocked our path. Moreover, if any of the event posters featured words in any way related to sex, we were not allowed to hang them up around the school.

    The promotional materials and events we had planned both for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia and for the International Transgender Day of Visibility were all banned on campus. Faced with these restrictions, our only choice has been to alter the nature of some events, reduce their scale, or host them online or off-campus.

    The Z Society often puts on performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” a play that expresses women’s demands for rights and independence using the vagina as a focal point. The original work was written in the mid-1990s by American playwright Eve Ensler. We adapt the script, attempting to add our own elements and interpretations.

    Over the years, our audience — largely composed of students — has developed a growing appreciation for this play, evolving from initial curiosity and shock to understanding and acceptance. Every performance we put on is packed to the rafters. In the follow-up to each show, we also receive reviews from audience members in which they share their understanding of central themes, in addition to appraising our actors’ performances.

    However, the university’s views on “The Vagina Monologues” have yet to evolve. School officials worry that the play will have a “negative influence on the community.” It is not clear exactly what they mean by this, but I imagine that the college does not want us talking openly about a “dirty” subject like sex. Fortunately, we ultimately convinced them to let us hold a successful performance in a relatively secluded part of the campus. Renting an on-campus performance venue is always a formidable task in itself. The school believes that female reproductive organs are a taboo that cannot be openly spoken about.

    Be that as it may, no one can deny the fact that students are paying increasing attention to gender issues. More and more of them are researching certain phenomena from the perspective of gender, and the general course on gender offered by our school is very popular — a trend for which I believe the Z Society deserves some credit.

    Unfortunately, the school seems not to appreciate these changes; instead, they believe that we are not having a positive influence on campus culture. This is particularly the case when it comes to LGBT issues: The staff member responsible for overseeing our school’s student societies told us that we can neither hold nor advertise high-profile gatherings or discussions concerning the LGBT community.

    While our events are generally very popular, some of them are met with indifference. For instance, some of our more serious, academic events — such as discussions and book clubs — have very few participants, even though these events rely on audience participation. We hope that by sharing a variety of views, students will develop new insights into the different issues we cover.

    Although our society has many members, its environment is not particularly conducive to serious contemplation and discussion — it lacks a certain academic atmosphere. The majority of members are not sufficiently interested in social issues and aren’t willing to participate in the society’s events. This, in turn, has a negative effect on our cohesiveness and organization.

    Meanwhile, our limited access to resources has greatly restricted the society’s growth. A few faculty members who specialize in gender research support our events: They offer to speak at lectures, host book clubs, and fight for our acceptance among the school bureaucracy. However, we receive little support from the school itself. The money that the school allocates to our society barely covers our basic expenses, making it difficult for us to provide services that require greater funding. We once hoped to collaborate with the school’s psychological counseling center in order to provide peer counseling services that cater specifically to the LGBT community, but the school refused.

    The growth and evolution of the Z Society in the last decade or so is a testament to the way in which Chinese university students’ views on gender and sexuality have changed. Although the school bureaucracy has remained conservative and reluctant whenever we try to host large-scale events or overtly display our views, it is undeniable that the students themselves have demonstrated a great degree of open-mindedness and acceptance.

    As the leader of the society, I am sometimes frustrated by the restrictions we face and how powerless I am to change them in the short term. But regardless of social attitudes or our access to resources, the Z Society will continue to grow, striving to create a more welcoming and tolerant community.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: X.De Fenoyl/VCG)