Just over two years ago a gay rights parade was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a peaceful, hot, sunny afternoon, the weather matched only by the smiles of the participants, especially the colorful attire of the Thai lady boys.
Two years before, it had been a very different experience.
In 2009, local Thai thugs attacked the parade and in so doing brutally revealed what all LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people come to learn: Society is often only barely tolerant of sexual and gender identity differences, and if you do not appear to match social “normality” then you are always at risk.
Something similar has just happened in China, a country that some believe is becoming more tolerant and enlightened.
Tolerance begins with how a society and its people treat its minorities. It is easy to be tolerant of the majority.
A gay pride march took place in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, on May 17. It was held to mark International Day Against Homophobia. People came from all over China to take part.
Now, China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, and only stopped classifying it as a mental illness in 2001. Better late than never, one might say. A step in the right direction.
However, intolerance and homophobia are often just below the surface in so-called “enlightened societies,” especially those ruled by traditional-minded, unenlightened individuals. Step out of line and you will likely get slapped down. In other words, if you are LGBT, then you can exist, but do not go around parading yourself in public.
Well, alas, the Chinese LGBT people did go around parading themselves in public on May 17, in Changsha. And what happened? Well, all that Chinese “tolerance” went flying out the window.
The police broke up the march and arrested the organizers. Their crime? They had failed to get official permission for the parade. The main organizer of the Changsha parade, a 19-year-old man surnamed Xiang, was punished with a 12-day detention order. This case is not isolated. Chinese authorities have in the past reacted in exactly the same way to similar LGBT parades.
It is understandable that Chinese authorities are sensitive to “illegal parades.” After all, it cannot be easy trying to control a country the size of China, with a population of 1.5 billion.
However, do the authorities really believe that a few hundred LGBT people, parading colorfully, peacefully, indeed by definition promoting understanding and tolerance, are really a threat?
It is hard not to contrast the Chinese approach to LGBT rights and public expression with that of Taiwan. Taiwan is not a “gay paradise,” but at least Taiwanese LGBT people have their annual parade, now into its 10th year. It is one of the biggest, most colorful LGBT parades in the world. One estimate says 65,000 participated in last year’s parade.
What would the Chinese authorities do if faced with 65,000 singing, dancing, flag-waving, kissing, hugging, embracing, laughing, shouting, very happy LGBT people and supporters?
I hope one day we find out.
Stephen Whitehead is a visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University in Taipei.