Xiao Tie: 'Straight Chinese people still think of queer people as mythical'

We talked to feminist activist and head of Beijing LGBT Center Xiao Tie

Chen Chao
Bisexual feminist activist Xiao Tie knows about discrimination, both outside and within the LGBT community. Here are a few lessons in liberalism from the helmswoman of the Beijing LGBT Center

Curled up in an armchair, swaddled in an enormous scarlet snood, diminutive, bespectacled Xiao Tie, (‘Iron’ to English speakers) cuts a figure that belies her reputation as a fierce LGBT rights activist. In 2011, while still a student, Xiao Tie, 27, made headlines across the world when she appeared outside a registry office in Wuhan with another young woman to demand a marriage licence. The story went viral on China’s blogosphere as one of the first public protests in support of equal marriage anywhere in Asia. While the protest itself was a publicity stunt (Xiao Tie admits that she has already attempted three such ‘marriages’ with both men and women, joking that it has earned her something of a reputation), it got her noticed by, among others, the Beijing LGBT Center.

‘I had visited the centre in 2011,’ she recalls, between sips of hot water from a chipped mug. ‘I remember the room was packed with people, the walls plastered in photos and big welcome signs. I thought: Wow, it’d be amazing to work somewhere like this. Less than two years later, I was running the place!’

Xiao Tie took over from outgoing executive director Stephen Leonelli in September 2012, making her the first bisexual woman to lead the organisation. And, as she admits, being bisexual in China – or anywhere – can be a tricky proposition. ‘I think, [for most Chinese people] bisexuality is a very embarrassing subject. Many straight Chinese people still think of all queer people as mythical, so this makes bisexuals even more marginalised. When you tell people who assume you’re gay or lesbian that you’re bisexual, it can be a conversation killer!’

This has led Xiao Tie to reach out not just to bisexuals (she launched the first bisexual salon at the LGBT Center last year), but other groups often ignored in the global fight for equality – elderly and disabled gay people, as well as transsexuals and cross-dressers. This year, the centre will hold its first events aimed specifically at some of these groups.

‘My focus is never just on the centre – it’s on China. We can’t separate our development from the development of the entire queer community. I’m young, maybe I don’t have the authority, but I do have the drive.’

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One area in which Xiao Tie has been instrumental in effecting change is the fight against conversion therapy, which she and the LGBT Center have been protesting against for years. After picketing a few Beijing clinics, the centre initiated a project to collect testimony from Chinese LGBT people who had undergone conversion therapy, whether medical or psychiatric. This year, she explains, they are expanding their investigation to try to discover just how many doctors, psychiatrists and counsellors across the country continue to practise it. While attending a China-wide psychiatric conference, Xiao Tie and other volunteers were shocked at how ignorant some of China’s leading experts were about homosexuality.

‘One psychologist came up to our stall and said, “We simply can’t support you. If we do, won’t humanity become extinct?”’ Despite her obvious anger with such views, Xiao Tie doesn’t condemn those that hold them. ‘In China, nobody’s had a decent sex education, so the concept of other sexualities hasn’t even occurred to them. We’re working with psychologists and physicians to de-pathologise attitudes to homosexuality.’

As part of this, the centre now offers training for psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors. So far over 60 have attended these sessions, with some 20 emerging as what Xiao Tie describes as ‘gay friendly’, while the rest ‘no longer see homosexuality as something that can be “treated” or “cured”.’

Despite advancing the centre’s agenda, however, Xiao Tie knows there are limits to the capabilities of herself and her colleagues. ‘Beijing is a challenge in terms of market,’ she continues. ‘There are lots of resources and possibilities, but also limitations.’

Attracting more people to volunteer is a problem, as is attracting more women to the Centre. ‘Lots of local LGBT women mistakenly think we’re a centre for gay men, and so they’re reluctant to get involved.’

There’s also the ever-present issue of funding. Despite receiving grants from the Ford Foundation and having a few generous donors, a reliance on young people and students, and difficulties attracting people to public events have left the centre struggling to fund its more ambitious programmes.

For Xiao Tie, the solution to these challenges is mass mobilisation. ‘We know that the centre can’t be a meeting place for everyone, so we’re trying to establish external channels, and cooperating with other organisations like Advocacy Action and local LGBT organisations throughout China, to expand our available resources.’

‘I think I was chosen for this job because I share a vision with the centre – a commitment to diversity, respect and cooperation. Some organisations focus on lesbians, or gay men, but I feel that there’s a real need for organisations that are truly, and comprehensibly, LGBT.'
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