The LGBTQ+ community needs to show Beijing that the goals and priorities of the LGBTQ+ movement for equality and inclusion do not clash with its own goals of social harmony and effective governance but instead help Beijing achieve them.

On May 15, 2023, the Beijing LGBT Center was forced to close its doors by the Chinese authorities. The shutdown of the Chinese capital’s LGBTQ+ center not only comes as a massive blow for advocacy groups in China which strive to provide liminal spaces for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community but also for China’s LGBTQ+ movement at large. This shutdown is the latest instalment in a more extensive, overarching marginalising effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government on the queer Chinese.

Since Xi became the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2012, the already limited spaces for LGBTQ+ expression and activism in China have shrunk further. Although state-reproval of queer Chinese is not essentially new, Xi’s “Common Prosperity” initiative showcases a systematic and comprehensive strategy to reorganise society through a crackdown on western influences on Chinese culture. In this context, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ population finds itself placed squarely in the line of fire since they are viewed as being against traditional Chinese culture. Via these crackdowns, the Chinese government has managed to confine the LGBTQ+ movement and curtail the provision of benefits and social services like counselling, healthcare, community events, workshops and inclusive safe spaces for networking. In these circumstances, Chinese sexual minorities find themselves more vulnerable to pervasive discrimination, social stigma and harassment. These developments beg the question: What is the impact of these crackdowns on the effective governance of the CPC? How do sexual and gender minorities in China put forth their demands to the state?

China’s Queer Collective: Some Context

Although it might seem like homosexuality has always been a taboo topic in China, that has not always been the case. In his book, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, Bret Hinsch details the homosexual tradition in ancient China, especially the Han dynasty, wherein he shatters the preconceived notion of solely ascetic Confucian ideals shaping sexual practices in China. Similar accounts indicating the existence of homosexuality in Chinese literature have been recorded by Chinese scholars in books and articles such as Fang-Fu Rran’s China chapter in the Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality: A Multi-Nation Comparison; F F Ruan and Y M Tsai’s article Male homosexuality in traditional Chinese literature; as well as in  texts from the Ming and Liu Song dynasties. These accounts showcase the tolerance of male homosexuality in China, debunking the argument that homosexuality is a Western tool to undercut the Party’s control over civil society.

However, this tradition of acceptance of homosexuality was drastically altered during the Qing dynasty when Confucianism became sanctified, within which homosexuality went against the norms of filial piety and disrupted social harmony. Fast forward to 1740: homosexuality was decreed illegal for the first time in Chinese history and homophobic attitudes began consolidating. Furthermore, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the LGBTQ+ community were targeted and charged with ‘hooliganism’ which was later decriminalised in 1997. This laid the foundation for homophobia in Chinese society, with homosexuality seen as a deviation from societal norms and an impediment to the traditional family structure in place. It was in the 1980s, with gradual liberalisation during Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up” era, that more public discussions on sensitive topics like homosexuality began to take place. With the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s, queer activists were able to communicate and mobilise which in turn led to the subtle consolidation of grassroots LGBTQ+ organisations in China.

Anti-discrimination laws in China have historically had a narrow focus on gender. For instance, while historical discourses on sexuality have taken place, women’s sexuality has been rarely discussed – and possibly suppressed – in China. As a result, most anti-discrimination laws in China have been focused only on male homosexuality, while ignoring the rest of the queer community. As such, by and large, these laws have excluded LBT (lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people from its purview. Although China’s current Penal Code (1997) does not contain any explicit prohibition of homosexuality, and in 2001, homosexuality was removed from the official list of disorders in the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-3), same-sex marriage is not recognised in China. Providing some relief, limited rights concerning medical care and property management were granted to same-sex couples under the “legal guardianship” system which was enacted in 2017.

The contemporary LGBTQ+ movement in China has also largely been influenced by the wider, international gay movement  – prior to this, traditional Chinese literature had historical records of homosexual acceptance as well, contrary to popular belief – which has played a crucial role in raising awareness and visibility about LGBTQ+ rights globally; advocating for legal reform and policy change; and building and supporting local networks of solidarity. This cross-cultural exchange has encouraged the Chinese LGBTQ+ community to come together and utilise social media networks to share their experiences, organise safe space events, and champion their cause. Nonetheless, the local context, socio-cultural factors, and government policies also shape the course of China’s gay movement. All of these factors together have led to the creation of a vibrant, diverse queer community in (mostly urban) China but while they have grown in visibility and influence over the years, it faces challenges and limitations due to legal constraints, state policies and societal attitudes.

Beijing’s Mixed Signalling: The CPC’s Marginalisation of the LGBTQ+ Community 

The CPC’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights has remained deceptive. On one hand, China accepted five of the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendations on LGBTQ+ rights in 2019 and has claimed to oppose all forms of discrimination and violence, “including discrimination, violence, and intolerance based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” in international fora. On the other hand, Beijing has also made systematic attempts to restrict the LGBTQ+ community through efforts to “correctly propagandise sexual health, sexual orientation & sexual morality” on the internet; by banning and censoring LGBTQ+-related content on online platforms; and by the forceful closure of organisations like ShanghaiPRIDE in 2020 and LGBT Rights Advocacy China in 2021. This dissonance between the Party’s rhetoric on a global scale and ground-level realities can be ascribed to a ‘tug of war’ over the prioritisation of LGBTQ+ rights within the CPC’s agenda.

Moreover, new national classifications of online LGBTQ+ content as “unhealthy” for minors; the heteronormative definition of marriage as a “union between a man and a woman” in China’s civil code; clampdowns on social media accounts of LGBTQ+ student organisations; and overall restrictions on LGBTQ+ activities in China have effectively curbed LGBTQ+ expression and activism in the public domain. This has inadvertently led to a spike in discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ+ community, leaving them vulnerable and marginalised and hindering their ability to negotiate their terms with the state.

In 2016, the Beijing LGBT Center worked in tandem with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Peking University to publish a report providing a baseline of the adversities faced by sexual and gender minorities and gender in China. Although there is no official census data concerning LGBTQ+ people (for those who come out as queer, the option “other” is marked when asked for “relationship to head of household” in the census questionnaire), the nationwide cross-sectional survey touches upon various areas of concern for the LGBTQ+ community in China, — public healthcare, discrimination in employment and educational settings — gives a comprehensive overview of the social, cultural, legal and institutional settings for LGBTQ+ people in China and encourages the promotion of holistic anti-discriminatory and protective policies for them. Nonetheless, growing social acceptance of LGBTQ+ orientation has not yet translated into state policy for LGBTQ+ rights in China. 

Xi’s Take on the LGBTQ+ Community

More and more, Xi Jinping’s China has been guided by dogmatic traditions and Confucian values which have become enmeshed within the Party’s policies. This has set the stage for a conservative China with increasing social control exercised by Beijing. Conservative nationalists in China view LGBTQ+ persons as Western imports meant for causing social disharmony and as one of the reasons for China’s deteriorating demographic crisis. This reasoning goes against the historical records of male homosexuality in ancient Chinese literature, such as “The Difficulties of Persuasion” in Han Fei Tzu and the story of Emperor Han Ai-ti in the History of the Former Han. Furthermore, the current scenario of LGBTQ+ rights and issues in China takes a turn for the worse, when viewed from an intersectional angle. 

With Xi’s — and by extension, the Party’s — growing opposition to dissent and nonconformity, the erasure of LGBTQ+ spaces in society is viewed as a type of collateral damage. The lack of guiding principles from the political elite regarding the LGBTQ+ has translated to the low prioritisation of LGBTQ+ issues in the CPC’s policy agenda. This has resulted in contradictory stances taken by governmental bodies in their dealings with LGBTQ+ issues. For instance, in 2018, Weibo reversed its own ban on gay content online, amidst a public outcry. Similarly, in 2020, the official Twitter account of the People’s Daily celebrated Pride Month but later deleted the tweet.

This marginalisation of China's LGBTQ+ community has severe implications for the CPC's effective governance. By restricting LGBTQ+ expression and activism, the government curtails the provision of essential benefits and social services, leaving sexual and gender minorities vulnerable to discrimination, stigma, and harassment. The (structural, public and self) stigmas attached to the LGBTQ+ community at large, contribute to their perception in the eyes of the Chinese collective as being non-conformist and against traditional Chinese gender norms. Moreover, despite growing public support for LGBTQ+ rights in China, it remains a difficult and complex task for gender and sexual minorities to truly assimilate into a largely rural, conservative and conformist society. 

Nonetheless, China’s relative tolerance for LGBTQ+ issues can be seen when compared to Beijing’s handling of human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This could also be attributed to Beijing’s perception of the LGBTQ+ movement in China to be non-threatening to its national security, authority, and governance. The limited spaces that the LGBTQ+ community have available to them, given the Party’s stringent control over the dissemination of information, does provide a glimmer of hope for the LGBTQ+ community in China. 

Opposing Erasure and the Way Forward

Efforts to combat erasure and promote inclusivity are critical for advancing the rights and well-being of sexual and gender minorities in China. In order to do so, the LGBTQ+ community needs to continue to seek legal recourse for LGBTQ+ rights on a broad range of issues, such as marriage equality; engage in dialogue and raise awareness on LGBTQ+ issues; and most importantly, be viewed as within the collective society, as opposed to outside it. Activists, artists, individuals and organisations who champion inclusivity continue to play a vital role in shaping the narrative and advocating for change. The LGBTQ+ community will have to showcase that their demands are not a type of foreign import or individualistic concerns which could debilitate the society. Instead, the true character of advocating for LGBTQ+ rights in China as a collective experience needs to be highlighted.

The LGBTQ+ community needs to show Beijing that the goals and priorities of the LGBTQ+ movement for equality and inclusion do not clash with its own goals of social harmony and effective governance but instead help Beijing achieve them. This can be sought by increasing interactions between the queer community and Chinese policymakers to accommodate their interests into national policy; highlighting the economic advantages of LGBTQ+ inclusion, such as talent retention and improved international reputation; running public awareness campaigns and strengthening local initiatives for LGBTQ+ rights in the content of China’s rich cultural history; and encouraging international human rights organisations and other influential actors to engage with the Chinese government.

However, the onus for promoting equality, inclusivity and dignity ultimately lies on the government. The CPC's marginalisation of China's LGBTQ+ community, exemplified by the closure of the Beijing LGBT Center, reflects a broader pattern of crackdowns and restrictions. If Beijing wishes to further strengthen its authority and legitimacy over Chinese society, it needs to reevaluate its policy towards the largest LGBTQ+ population in the world. Doing so would enable Beijing to achieve its goal of effective governance and further enhance China’s soft power projection in international politics. As China continues to face internal and external pressures, the accommodation of diverse groups becomes increasingly essential for a harmonious society.

Read Part 2 of this series here.


Ahana Roy is Research Associate and Chief Operations Officer at Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). She is a postgraduate in Political Science with International Relations from Jadavpur University. Her areas of interest include non-traditional security studies with a focus on gender and sexuality studies, society, and culture in China specifically and East Asia broadly. She can be reached on Twitter @ahanaworks and her email

Subscribe now to our newsletter !

Get a daily dose of local and national news from China, top trends in Chinese social media and what it means for India and the region at large.

Please enter your name.
Looks good.
Please enter a valid email address.
Looks good.
Please accept the terms to continue.