Qiuyan Chen is a young Chinese activist based in London. Her work started in 2013, with a campaign suing the Chinese government for publishing textbooks promoting conversion therapy and describing homosexuality as an illness, and since then she has found Queer China UK, the network dedicated to promoting links between the Chinese and British LGBT communities. She has also been running a mutual support network during the pandemic for overseas Chinese students trapped in the UK, as well as numerous other projects.
Despite facing threats from her university and the Chinese government, Qiuyan has continued her activism and hopes to encourage and develop a new generation of international activists. I caught up with her over Zoom in February to talk about it.
Hi Qiuyan, nice to meet you! Firstly, how did you get started in activism?
In 2013, as a first-year undergraduate, I knew some gay people, so I came out to my friends. Then, when I was studying, I found some textbooks that referred to homosexuality as an illness and quite a lot of materials referring to conversion therapy. I thought it was ridiculous, so I wanted to try and do something. At first, I lobbied the Guangdong office — I thought anyone could have written the textbook. Some of them thought the textbook was right — gay men should be cured. Some of them just ignored me because I was a student. The Guangdong court rejected my lawsuit, as homosexuality is a sensitive issue. I was upset, but my lawyer advised me to continue to Beijing. Finally, in August 2015, the court assessed my case. At that time, I had been under a lot of pressure from the university and government. The university administration officer often told me to stop my activism, or I would not be able to graduate. Eventually, they outed me to my parents. But I continued my activism: I sued them three times from 2015 to 2017. I kept lobbying stakeholders and also held an art exhibition, creating art related to the textbooks because I wanted the topic to be known. Unfortunately, in the end, I had to end my campaign so I could come to the UK to study. But I may return to it.
How have you found the UK?
When I came here, I found that many Chinese people don’t know what is happening with the Chinese LGBT activism movement, so I often introduce them to it. I put on a lot of events to talk about my activism. People were pretty surprised by my experience. I think there’s a cultural difference: Western societies are not very familiar with the East Asian queer community. When I talk to my British friends, they just think that homosexuality is illegal in China. So, I hope that Queer China UK can become a platform for mutual understanding.
Could you tell me more about Queer China UK?
I started organising some events in 2019, when we didn’t have a specific name. But once I knew I could stay in the UK after graduation, I set up a real organisation, Queer China UK. I applied for some funding, but we didn’t receive any: these grants often have a lot of requirements about the structure of the organisation. I applied for activism funding from LSE but it was only around £200. Luckily, you can apply for classrooms at LSE and then you can hold lectures. In China you wouldn’t be able to do that for an LGBT event at university.
We wanted to create a Chinese transnational queer community network, connecting people through online events. There are also a lot of mainland Chinese people who have no idea what it means to be LGBT, so I wanted to talk about gender and sexuality for that audience.
One of your recent projects is a leadership academy, how is that going?
Yes, it started at the end of March. We planned to recruit 50 people, but received 90 applications. Some from Europe, Britain, Germany, Italy, some from New Zealand and Australia, and also from Hong Kong and mainland China. I’m quite interested in leadership because in China I was a mentor for young LGBT people. I already had experience, so I just had to redesign how to bring it to the Chinese diaspora community. The leadership programme will start with education on gender and sexuality, then afterwards people can become activists themselves. It’s not compulsory, but if I see potential, I will encourage them through mentoring.
And the mutual support network?
I started this in late November last year. It’s a platform for people to meet online. International students are so isolated, especially during the pandemic. Sometimes we talk about specific issues, like being transgender, or intimacy. We share our stories and thoughts on the topic. I received feedback from attendees, saying that because of the pandemic, people didn’t have a chance to go out, so it’s good to have people to talk to informally. About 30 people come regularly and quite a lot of people come just for one or two events. I am not a mental health expert and I don’t help people with any psychological issues, but I do think it’s helpful for people to have a support network.
You also run tours, right?
Yes. The most popular is the decolonising LGBT tour of the British Museum. Some have different themes, like women’s struggles or trans people. But now our whole tour is online. Quite a lot of people joined, and many people are not from the UK: from New Zealand or America. We have the feminist tour of the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum. We also have a series of city tours, introducing LGBT attractions around the UK. I think the tour is also a way to build community. Lots of Chinese people believe the LGBT equal rights is more advanced in the UK, but I want to emphasise not to take that for granted. They also had many LGBT individuals and groups contributing to the struggle for equal rights. I received some positive feedback: ‘I never knew there were so many great people in history’.
And finally, what about your consultancy work?
The consultancy is sometimes just one lecture. I remember we hosted several lectures on how to improve your sexual pleasure for gays and lesbians, because sexual behaviour is nothing to be ashamed of. We also have some customised training for businesses. But recently we updated our customised services because we want to tackle racism and LGBT issues together: it can be an advantage on how to tackle Chinese queer inclusion. For example, I recently consulted for a Chinese gay couple who wanted to marry and honeymoon in the UK, so I provided some suggestions and guidelines for them to feel comfortable.
As well as LGBT issues, do you take an intersectional approach to activism?
At first, I did not have a clear understanding of how to solve this problem of intersectionality, but during the pandemic, I began to understand. Many Chinese people have faced racism during the pandemic. But when queer people experience racism, they find it harder to integrate with the Western community and they may also face homophobia from the Chinese community. That’s why I wanted to introduce a Chinese queer and gender-friendly space. You cannot just tackle one problem and ignore another.
During the textbook campaign, we cooperated with the disability activist community, because the textbooks discriminate against HIV+ and disabled people. I am also trying to incorporate more feminism into LGBT events. I think it’s important to keep learning. Even though we are an LGBT minority rights group, sometimes we discriminate against other groups: maybe gay men discriminate against women, maybe lesbians discriminate against transgender people. So, you have to keep reflecting on yourself.
It is also a class issue. For example, I am from the countryside, so my parents do not support me studying. If I hadn’t had a scholarship, I would have had no opportunity to leave China. So, people who can go abroad to study are privileged. I want to work with more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and also more women. Some people say that when you look at the Chinese LGBT community, what you will see is middle-class gay men, not poor lesbians, transgender or bisexual people - they are less visible.
How has activism changed for you since you’ve been involved with it? Did you always want to pursue activism?
I have seen changes actually, because if you run any programme or activism campaign, you will impress people. Sometimes a large number, sometimes a small number. For example, for the homophobic textbook campaign, lots of people had noticed the textbook, but students kept quiet about it. Since my campaign, I think Chinese society has realised they are homophobic, which is a huge change. Also, I was recently lobbying an editor and they recognised my name and agreed to rewrite the textbook. Before, I found that no one replied to me. But now, they have seen the news and they know lots of people care about the textbook, so they feel pressured.
At the very beginning, I never thought that I would go to the front line of this movement. I don’t have much knowledge, I am not good at speaking, I don’t have leadership skills. But I was so deeply affected by those textbooks, when I was curious about my sexuality. I had some LGBT friends who became depressed after reading the textbooks. The textbook issue affects so many people, but no one wants to be the one to point out the problem. At first, I waited and kept silent, because I was also afraid of the pressure from my parents and the university. But after several months nobody came forward, so I got angry. Why should we have to worry so much about these pressures just because of our sexuality? So, I suddenly became a brave person. I didn’t tell my friends, because I was worried about whether they would support me. At the start, I still wasn’t confident. I wasn’t a law student. I didn’t know how to start a lawsuit. But I wrote some articles, I came out on my Wechat public account, and I received a lot of support — some just one sentence, but some law students also offered their help. So that’s why I think a support network is so important. Even though we are just students with no experience, we can share skills and help each other.
How did you find it studying at LSE?
I found it difficult. When I was an undergraduate, I had to spend a lot of time working to support myself, so I couldn’t spend as much time studying. To come to the UK, I spent a long time studying for the IELTS exam, but when I started my master’s, I still struggled to read papers. In seminars, I sometimes couldn’t follow the other students’ comments. Also, in the gender studies department, there were not many Chinese people. I saw this reflected in the papers I read. There’s no gender studies in China, so queer theory is developed by Western scholars. Sometimes I found they were not connected with East Asian countries at all.
How have you found it collaborating with Western organisations?
I was invited to Brighton to share my experience at an event that wasn’t designed for Chinese people: British people are quite happy to ask questions and discuss details in a really warm way, they didn’t just ignore us. They asked me a lot about the outcome of my activism and were quite interested in the Chinese queer community. I remember one British gay activist apologised to me after the meeting for speaking too fast! I thought it was really welcoming. I want to become a facilitator between the Chinese and Western queer communities. Just like Soho and Chinatown are very close, I always say we want to build a bridge between them. I hope one day Chinatown will have not only red lanterns, but also rainbow flags.
I have to ask, why are you called Qiu Bai?
I don’t want to use my real name, especially in Chinese media, because my parents are not aware of my activism. Actually, there is a story. When the movie Big Hero 6 came out, I thought the character Baymax was a very warm figure. His Chinese name is Da Bai. So, I published my articles under the name Qiu Bai. We also did a Baymax cosplay protest at the Guangdong government department. Some people saw the costume and assumed we were just advertising the movie, so they came over and I spoke to them about LGBT issues! We didn’t want to make our performance activism too serious or radical, it can also be creative and attractive.
You previously signed up for mentoring with the Mulan Foundation: how has that been? Can you tell us about your experience?
They appointed a mentor to me, but actually I knew her before. She can speak Chinese and lived in Beijing. She is also a lesbian and quite active in LGBT organisations, so we had already met. It was really helpful because she knew a lot of Western LGBT resources, whereas I know a lot of Chinese resources and I am still quite new here.
So what are your plans for the future?
I am interested in the leadership programme and in how to empower people to become change makers in their fields. Also I’m working on the understanding between rural and urban Chinese people. I want to work on that maybe with a cultural festival, a summer school or something. I want to create a network between Chinese and Western queer people. As long as this network exists, you can find lots of opportunities to collaborate and know what’s going on, on the global stage.
I want to stay in the UK to continue my activism, as Queer China UK is at a very early stage. Currently, our plan is to continue the Queer Leadership programme in the second half of 2021 to empower more Chinese diaspora. Besides, we have launched another art project, called <Safe Distance>, a documentary & photography project, documenting the lives of Queer Chinese in UK under COVID-19. We look for collaborative opportunities to promote our artworks, in order to raise awareness of the intersection of racism and LGBTQ+ discrimination in the UK and to improve the visibility of Chinese queer people. It could be online and offline screenings, photo exhibitions, panel discussion etc.