China hushes up first gay pride week

Police warned two Shanghai venues against hosting events, even as a state-run daily hailed the festival as a "showcase" of progress.

Organizers of China's first gay pride week were struggling Thursday to find new venues for their events after police in Shanghai warned clubs and bars against joining the planned festival.

The crackdown came even as China's state-run English-language daily was hailing the celebration as "a good showcase of the country's social progress" and "an event of profound significance."

Police and commercial bureau officials warned a local restaurant of "very severe" consequences if it screened films as part of the festival, says an organizer who asked not to be identified. A photo studio called off a theater performance after a similar visit.

Gay activists said the official interference illustrated official Chinese policy toward homosexual gatherings: low-key events in private spaces are tolerated; public activities are banned.

"If you attract a lot of attention and media reports, the government will intervene," says Wan Yanhai, an AIDS activist in Beijing.

The two American women who organized Shanghai Pride week deliberately avoided scheduling any public events that would have required official permission, for fear of being banned. The festival of film, theater, literary readings, and panel discussions, however, has drawn considerable international media attention, even if the Chinese-language press in Shanghai has made no mention of the event. Most of the 500 or so people who have attended events so far have been foreigners.

There are thought to be around 35 million homosexuals in China, who face considerable discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere if they are courageous enough to come out. Homosexuality was a crime here until 1997, and classed as a mental disorder until 2001. Some government-funded medical institutes are still trying to find a "cure" for homosexuality.

Although gay websites, clubs, and tea rooms have sprung up in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, there is still a taboo on gay culture in Chinese cinema and television. At the same time, adds Mr. Wan, "the traditional Chinese concept of the family is very conservative, and families put heavy pressure on gays to get married."

"Official attitudes have not changed at all," complains Cui Zi'en, a gay activist and film director. The general public, however, is growing more tolerant, he says, and young people are better informed than their parents about sexuality.

"We are still trying to make sense" of the police interference in Shanghai Pride, one of the organizers says. "But social and official attitudes will both continue to slowly and gradually embrace homosexuality in China. This is an irreversible tide."

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