Wed, Sep 16, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Working-class gay men, police stand off in Guangzhou

THERE’S THE RUB Police say they’re not against gay men, but oppose sex in public restrooms. Young gay men say they don’t have many other options

AP , GUANGZHOU, CHINA

When the police descend on People’s Park and shoo away the gay men gathered there, the men usually scatter to avoid trouble. But recently, about 50 or so confronted five officers who began a sweep and finally forced a police retreat after a heated but nonviolent standoff.

“I told them they might not like us, but they can’t stop us from coming here,” said AIDS activist Xiao Mu, who was handing out condoms and pamphlets about safe sex when the police arrived on Aug. 25. “We have a right to be in the park.”

Though mostly ignored by state-run media, news of the incident in the southern city of Guangzhou — also known as Canton — spread quickly on the Internet and became a hot topic in gay chat forums nationwide. Some in China’s gay community see it as a sign of a new sense of empowerment and a burgeoning awareness of their rights.

Members of the community have had minor confrontations with the authorities before in other cities. But usually the disputes play out in a low-key way, without much resistance to sweeps, said Lu Jun, founder of a Beijing-based group that fights discrimination against people with hepatitis B.

“I’ve never heard of something like this happening anywhere else,” Lu said about the Guangzhou incident. “I think what happened marks great progress for homosexuals.” Gay activist Dao Dao in Shanghai also applauded those in Guangzhou for standing up for their rights. But he said he doubted it was the right long-term strategy. He favors striving for wider acceptance by being model citizens, rather than being outspoken and confrontational.

“We don’t do any harm to the society. I think that’s the best way to show all the people that we are good people and nothing different,” said Dao Dao, who works in finance and also helps organize gay parties, sporting events and other activities.

Gay rights have come a long way since the years just after the 1949 communist revolution when homosexuality was considered a disease from the decadent West and feudal societies, and gay people were persecuted. China waited until 1997 to decriminalize sodomy.

Homosexuality was finally removed from the official list of mental disorders in 2001. But still, there are no widely accepted estimates of the number of gay people in China.

This year has already been an eventful one for gay rights. In June, the first gay pride festival was held in Shanghai, the nation’s commercial capital. Later in the month, the five-day Beijing Queer Film Festival was held — an event that police blocked in 2001 and 2005.

But as those cities showed signs of being more tolerant, Guangzhou authorities were starting to crack down in People’s Park — a shady oasis of trees and gazebos in the middle of the muggy, traffic-congested city. The park is popular with youngsters who play badminton or retirees practicing their ballroom-dancing moves to stereos blasting out tunes like Sukiyaki, the Japanese ballad that became a hit in the US in the 1960s.

For years, the park has also been a favorite hangout for gay men, especially among the young or working-class who can’t afford the bars and restaurants around town that cater to the community. The men — many dressed in tank tops and tight jeans — stroll around the park or sit together on a long line of stone benches. Nearby is a public restroom, where some men have sex — a source of much of the friction with the police.

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