LGBT activist Xiaogang Wei talks equality in China

The award-winning campaigner discusses coming out, policy and activism

Chen Chao
Xiaogang Wei has been at the forefront of LGBT equality issues for over a decade. The award-winning campaigner talks to Time Out about coming out, Government policy and why he left acting for activism

It’s been a busy year for you! Shall we start with your awards success, perhaps?
[Laughs] Which one?

Well, Element magazine’s inaugural Pink Award, and last year you were the first person from China to win the LA Lesbian and Gay Center’s International Vanguard Award.
The Vanguard Award really surprised me. Being recognised by the people I really care about gave me this moment to think about our work over the year, and what we’ve achieved. I was really honoured. I was standing up there in person with [NBA star] Jason Collins and the cast of Orange is the New Black. They were all so sweet!

But it’s not all about awards.
Who told you that? I’m Chinese, it’s all about awards!

What’s a typical day for you?
Well, my daily job involves a lot of conferences and a lot of learning. I work on five different programmes and so many different projects involving gender, sexuality and LGBT rights. I also make and edit films, and teach others about filmmaking. And, of course, there’s the AIDS Walk.

Which is getting bigger every year, yes?
Well, that’s actually how I got the Vanguard Award. I never would have expected me to be the one that brought the AIDS Walk to China!

Why not?
Because we don’t really ‘do’ Aids events these days. In the past there was a lot of focus from non-governmental organisations on HIV/Aids, but now I concentrate more on gender and sexuality. The AIDS Walk was a new form of advocacy. When it comes to activism in China, people don’t really get a chance to participate. The AIDS Walk allows people to be outside with all kinds of different groups: drag queens, HIV-positive people – people most Chinese never get to meet in their lives.

Did you imagine you’d end up here when you first came to Beijing? Was this always the plan?
My dream was to become a professional actor [strikes a pose], but I didn’t fit into the acting world. I still act very occasionally, but now it’s just for fun! When I started volunteering for NGOs in 2000, I saw what I could offer. From 2000 to 2007 I worked for a bunch of NGOs – Huiling, the Positive Art Workshop, Magic Hospital – and I found I was able to see myself from the outside. Back then it wasn’t so much about helping people, it was how much you could help yourself, find confidence, learn about society and other people’s issues. When you’re young you can easily just focus on yourself – all the issues, all the drama – but it becomes a black hole.

Did your work influence your decision to come out?
Working for HIV/Aids NGOs really brought LGBT issues to my attention, and also helped me understand my own sexuality and how I communicated with others about my sexuality. I do think my sexual identity is more a political one – in fact, I barely talk about the fact that I’m gay anymore, it is just one small part of my identity. In certain situations, though, I like to come out. It lets people in hiding know at least there’s one other person like them. I remember in 2010 I was invited to a big sexuality conference. I was the only outsider – everyone else was a teacher – and the first thing I did was say my name, and that I was gay and willing to talk to them about it.

Do you think that the visibility issue is changing in China?
You have to compare it to how things were. The internet has helped a lot, as have LGBT organisations. But I’d say it’s only since around 2005 that gay culture has become more visible, things like LGBT film festivals, for example. Obviously things are much better in Beijing and Shanghai. I think in Chinese society, in a way, the people are ahead of Government policy, but, of course, Beijing is only a small part of the huge country that is China. But nowadays, if you have a phone or a computer, the internet can help you to find a group to talk to – even in a very small city.

So where do you think there’s the most room for improvement in terms of LGBT equality in China?
I would say media freedom on LGBT issues is really important, as is anti-discrimination legislation. These two issues really relate to a lot of problems affecting minority rights – with freedom on these issues, we can easily find allies to work with. Today, people in the media still get mandates not to discuss LGBT issues. Foreign countries can set an example, show China that, by making policy changes on certain issues, society can become more stable.

Global discourse on LGBT issues tends to be dominated by the Western liberation movement. What do you think people like you can teach activists in the West about LGBT acceptance?
Because religion isn’t really a factor, I’d say people in China don’t hate gay people, they don’t think being gay is ‘sinful,’ they just don’t understand us. But nobody’s saying you’ll go to hell. Even when I talk to the police, they say things like, ‘Okay, so you’re gay, just don’t make it public. You’re a minority, just keep quiet.’ If the Government just wanted to change some laws, it would be much easier to promote [equality] in society. It’s a social issue. If parents know their child can get married, have kids, then it’ll be fine. That said, I’m not really that into promoting equal marriage. I think we really need to talk about rights first. Equality is a basic right – you don’t ask for more, just the same as everyone else.

Xiaogang Wei’s work, and news of other local activists, can be seen at Queer Comrades (formerly Queer as Folk Beijing), which can be found at www.queercomrades.com
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