It took Hu Yijin (not her real name) 69 years to discover she was a lesbian; she had been married for 45 years when she finally found out what was wrong with her marriage and her life: she was into women.   

“She was very confused about herself when she found us through a friend,” explained Anchor, founder and director of the Beijing Lesbian Center, with headquarters in the Chinese capital. “Under pressure from her parents, Hu got married at a young age, although she had never liked men. She focused on her career throughout her life. Singing was her escape, the way she found to express her sorrow. Hu had never been in love,” Anchor kept on telling the unfortunate story that is common to so many Chinese lala – the informal Chinese term for lesbian – who take decades to understand they are not abnormal and are not alone.

“The day Hu called the center, we talked for about six hours. She said she had never spoken so much in her lifetime, and she certainly had never talked about homosexuality before in her life,” recalled Anchor, “she was very grateful for our help. The LGBT center provided Hu with books and materials about homosexuality and invited her to participate in their lala salons, events organised for gay people to share their experiences and meet others with similar experiences. 

Two women, Song and Zheng, celebrate their wedding even though China's law does not recognise same-sex marriage. Courtesy of BLC.

Two women, Song and Zheng, celebrate their wedding even though China's law does not recognise same-sex marriage. Courtesy of BLC.

"Living in such a traditional cultural and social context, it's very difficult for many lesbians, especially from the post-50s, 60s and 70s generations, who have grown up without the experience of bars, to accept the bar culture. This was one of the reasons that motivated BLC to create the lala salons," Anchor explained.   

Hu’s tale has a happy ending. Late in life, she decided she wanted to be free and live her life the way she liked. “She progressively became brave and confident. At 70, she met her current girlfriend and divorced her husband, disregarding others’ opinions. Her girlfriend is 20 years younger than she is, and they have lived happily ever since. But not all lesbians who live in the closet enjoy the same fate as Hu, especially if they live in the countryside, where tradition prevails and expects women to fulfill their role asprocreating housewives.  

“Poverty and local culture lead many lesbians in remote areas of China into a situation of confusion, lack of identification and isolation,” noted Anchor, explaining how these females deal with family and social pressure. “They are lonely. Without LGBT guidance and community support, many of them have been forced into heterosexual marriage. Those who can't cope with the pressure have often chosen to escape marriage by running to other cities or they have committed suicide." According to a survey by Shanghai Jiao Tong University released on December 25, 2013, two out of three adults in China still find homosexuality unacceptable, mainly because it is inconsistent with traditional Chinese values.

According to the leader of the BLC, the lesbian community faces discrimination at various levels: gay women are under pressure to open up and acknowledge their identity to their families; they are required, and often coerced, to get married; they face problems whether they are in a heterosexual or homosexual relationship; they face self-identification issues and discrimination in the workplace. Moreover, lesbians are not entitled to the legal right of marriage or the right of discourse, as materials like books and films about female homosexuality can’t be published publicly.

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Since it was created nine years ago, BLC has conducted seminars and workshops, has organised salons, has welcomed many volunteers and has built a network of branches around the country. “Volunteers from small cities and communities in the countryside have a major role in helping other lesbians gain self-confidence and awareness by actively involving them into LGBT programs in BLC. Very often, these volunteers hope there can be a lesbian center to hold lala salons in their hometown to bring more information and support to local people,” said Anchor. BLC currently relies on about 500 volunteers, but similarly to other NGOs, it survives with only two full-time employees and a permanent force of 20 volunteers. BLC is also in close contact with other LGBT groups and female NGOs, often stepping forward to reclaim female rights.

I think all lesbians are feminists regardless of their awareness of the term feminism. Lesbians don’t obey the rules of sex and gender in traditional society; they don’t believe women can only marry men and be child bearers, support their husband and educate their children, or have sex with men without ever taking pleasure in the joys of sex,” Anchor explained. The BLC leader believes there is no well-established idea of feminism in China, which prevents women from being more vocal about their concerns and more resolute about claiming their rights.

“China emphasises equality between the sexes in a legal sense but in reality, inequality outshines policies and rules, namely in the access to university and employment. Many women have no awareness of social equality and rights, they are used to receiving unequal treatment and don’t question it. Chinese women need to receive feminist education on a wide and deep level to counter thousands of years of deeply rooted patriarchal principles and male chauvinism; it’s the way to increase consciousness of female rights and to teach women to speak out when they’re treated unequally. 

On and offline, members of LGBT groups make another regular presence on the frontlines of feminism activism. “We were very surprised to see so many members of the LGBT community joining our activities,” said Xiong Jing. “They experience marginalization due to their gender but also due to their sexual orientation, so they have experience and are not reluctant to participate in street actions,” said the program manager. 

Messages posted on the wall during a workshop in Nanjing organised by Sinner-B, a Guangzhou-based NGO, that promotes gender equality and LGBT rights from the "feminist perspective."

Messages posted on the wall during a workshop in Nanjing organised by Sinner-B, a Guangzhou-based NGO, that promotes gender equality and LGBT rights from the "feminist perspective."

Deprived of representation at a political level, LGBT groups see cooperation with feminist NGOs as a way to build up some influence. “They’re organised around communities, they have no strength to voice their concerns at a higher level. The NGOs are trying to lobby the representatives, so they join us,” Xiong added. Traveling around the country to do workshops and train women, Professor Wang Zheng noted that LGBT groups currently exist is almost every big city in China. “Lesbians feel discriminated against and many of the ones who have stepped forward are university students. Meantime, young heterosexual women are all so deeply oppressed by the marriage system, that they are more worried about finding a husband,” added Wang Zheng. 

 

Ironically enough, the latest addition to the female lines of defence in Beijing has been inspired by a social media platform that is blocked in mainland China.  The Lean In circles are local chapters of LeanIn.Org, the nonprofit organisation founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to empower all women to achieve their ambitions. Taking the name of Sandberg’s book, these women don’t necessarily define themselves as feminists, they have no ties to local NGOs and focus primarily on female empowerment. 

A clock on the table starts ticking. “So tell us Mei Ling (not her real name), what changed since our last session for you? How did you deal with pending changes at work?” asked the host, facing a group of young women sitting in circle on sofas and on the floor in a cozy apartment at a high-end compound in downtown Beijing. Mei Ling shared how she was about to quit an underpaid job that she loved but where she was not appreciated. She was also pondering on changing her career altogether. 

The session went on with three of the 10 women sharing their issues and receiving insight and advice from the others. “Lean In is platform for women to get together to share whatever issues are affecting them at their work place and social/family sphere. But on the empowerment side, we also reach out for others not necessary within our circle to help people understand that there is this stigma about powerful women due to social stereotypes,” explained 34-year-old Carol Rafferty, who was originally born in Guangdong but was raised in the US.. 

In all Lean In circles, whether from professional or educational backgrounds, members are women in their late 20s and early 30s, mostly college graduates, Chinese and expats working in various fields. “One of us was being told that she was too old to further her career and  thatshe should get married soon otherwise she’d be a leftover woman (shengnu, well-educated woman who is unmarried at 27, visit page Systemic discrimination); the other was ending a relationship as she was working too hard,” said Rafferty, about some of the issues that women bring to the circle. 

The hostess organises sessions based on training materials online. “Firstly, We discuss salary negotiations, as women are usually the ones that take the first offers they get in every job. We train ourselves to be more vocal in asking for more, based on statistics and the market. Secondly, we go through the work-life balance, especially for women who are mothers and have families. Thirdly, we talk about how to find our passion in life, which is more prevalent among university graduates or graduate students who are still seeking a career path,” Rafferty clarified. 

Hong Kong-born Alicia Ye sees the group as a forum and a way for women to carve out time to think strategically about their future. “I never once in my lifetime thought I'd actually join a women's support group, it sounds negative to call it that because we're not crying to each other, it's more about sharing, supporting and helping each other succeed,” said 32-year-old Ye.

Inequality in the workplace and high social expectations for Chinese women based on their gender are the bigger reasons to justify Lean In. “We're not experts so we don't really know if inequality is better or worse than before, but I would say that we're encountering a deficit of time and opportunity in our lives. We all have multiple obligations, some have their own family, others have to take care of our parents, as opposed to our male counterparts who have less such expectations placed upon them. I would say women have much less time to actually think strategically about their future, whether in terms of their career or their personal development," Ye resumed.

Women from Lean In Beijing circle meet Sandberg. Photo courtesy of Lean In Beijing.

Rafferty studied at Yale and Stanford, while Ye studied in Chicago and then France. Lean In is essentially a privileged circle of well-educated, urban females. They recognise Lean In’s limited outreach to women of different communities. “For now, the criticism is certainly fair. For starters you’d need to have access to the materials online as well as books,” said Rafferty, admitting illiterate woman are automatically excluded. “There is huge room for improvement. But I think as we grow in numbers and experience, I really hope that eventually, it will reach the women who really need to find help.”

According to the organisers, the first showcase Lean In event drew in around 70 women, with subsequent initiatives to start professional and university circles. Rafferty estimates that about 500 women in Beijing know of and have participated in Lean In activities. 

The circles draw their energy from the eponymous book written by Sandberg. Even though her book is not blocked in China, Facebook is, and the circles were born as the government launched a strong campaign against rumours and targets activists groups online. “We're not talking about anything politically sensitive in our group sessions. We're really just a group of women getting together to talk about personal issues that we are facing on a daily basis, we're not trying to revolutionise or overthrow anything and we meet at home or university facilities, so I don't think there is going to be a problem,” Ye predicted. Rafferty believes that Lean In’s mission is cross-cultural and promoted positive change: “Whether or not we're directly or indirectly supported by the government, what we're trying to do is very basic. We want to make women happy, have the world support women's development and have more female leaders around the world.”