On Thursday evening resident Bwogger Maddie Stearn attended a talk hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. She may have been there for a class, but she got a lot more out of the experience than a few extra credit points.
“Health and Social Activism of Self-Identified Gay Men in Post-Socialist China”
Don’t let the lengthy title scare you off. It’s actually a little surprising that the title wasn’t longer, considering that Tiantian Zheng has amassed such an incredible trove of knowledge from her fieldwork in China. Dr. Zheng, a professor of Anthropology at SUNY Cortland, visited the Weatherhead East Asian Institute to present her most recent work with an HIV/AIDS organization in Dalian, China. The talk was moderated by Dorothy Ko, a Professor of History at Barnard and affiliate of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department.
During her presentation, Dr. Zheng covered far more than health and social activism, weaving in discussions of police brutality, government intervention, and the complexities of identity. However, each topic is intricately entangled in the subtleties of the others, so her presentation never strayed from its original subject matter.
“When One Person Becomes Gay, the Whole Family Becomes Glorious.”
Dr. Zheng saw this quote on a poster during a gay rights march in Dalian. The quote is a parody of a government slogan that reads, “When One Person Becomes a Soldier, the Whole Family Becomes Glorious.” According to Dr. Zheng, not only is it not “glorious” when a family member comes out in China, but the family is usually shamed in the process. Dr. Zheng elaborated on this sense of shame, saying that a son’s primary duty is to have children, making it difficult for gay men to come out because they are effectively discontinuing the family line. Furthermore, the Chinese government essentially renders the gay community invisible, so the poster that Zheng saw was a way of reclaiming the gay identity by appropriating and disrupting government discourse.
Meanwhile, during that very same march the HIV/AIDS organization that Dr. Zheng was working with did not identify themselves as affiliated with the gay community. Prior to the march Dr. Zheng received warnings from friends, telling her it was unsafe to attend the event, as there was a high chance of violence. Dr. Zheng’s experience was quite the contrary, largely because so few organizations actually voiced their affiliations with the gay community. The intent of the march was to show solidarity with the global gay community, and some organizations even held up rainbow flags during the march (Dr. Zheng noted that rainbows are not related to gay rights in China), but the event was not really recognizable as a gay rights march and proceeded without much outside attention. Considering past issues with police in particular, it appears that such ambiguity is a survival technique.
“These people should be arrested and sent to jail.”
In response to police raids on gay hangouts, the leader of a gay rights organization released a surprising statement in which he condemned the victims of these raids. The leader was also a self-identified gay man, so his damning words seem counterproductive to say the least. During her presentation, Dr. Zheng read a portion of the press release from the organization:
Gay men visiting these types of places should be arrested. It is these gay men who have brought stigma to the gay community and created a bad image of the gay community. These people should be arrested and sent to jail. I need to speak the truth because I have been to these places and seen ugly scenes. I myself am a gay, but I know that as a gay we need to know decency.
This statement is even more astonishing considering the that police were known to use violence during their raids. The fact is, however, that this organization’s opinion was not even in the minority. Dr. Zheng spoke to the leader of the group she was working with, and he agreed with the other organization’s statement. These reactions, according to Dr. Zheng, speak to the Dalian moral order and self-censorship within the gay community.
“Mutual benefits and fragility”
Some of the tension between gay-rights organizations and the gay community can be attributed to the strenuous relationship that these same organizations have with local government. To begin with, these organizations’ affiliation with the gay community is hidden from the public sphere, as they are only allowed to exist in the name of AIDS prevention. Dr. Zheng also mentioned that only a handful of AIDS prevention organizations are able to legally register, and once they do they are prohibited from applying for global funding. The small number of registered organizations must then engage in a relationship with the local government characterized by “mutual benefits and fragility.” Local officials proceed to take credit for the successes of these grassroots AIDS prevention groups, while the groups in turn rely heavily on local officials to prevent the shut down of AIDS prevention operations.
Dr. Zheng’s work in Dalian is just the most recent of her fieldwork on the politics of sex and gender in post-socialist China. Her published works include Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Post-Socialist China, Sex-Trafficking, Human Rights, and Social Justice, and Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China, among others.
Tiantian Zheng via SUNY Cortland