Being gay in China: Does the rainbow flag fly free?

Are there gay rights in China?
Are there gay rights in China?

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Story highlights

  • China's LGBT community has made huge gains in social acceptance
  • Unlike Western counterparts, they face little religious opposition
  • The biggest source of pressure comes from family, and the one-child policy
  • There is no legal protection in the work place for the LGBT community

In this month's On China join Kristie Lu Stout for a revealing conversation with China's leading gay rights advocates.

Beijing (CNN)In this narrow Beijing hutong, the rainbow flag flies free.

I'm in Two Cities Cafe, a popular meeting place for the local gay community. Here, I meet with some of the country's leading LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) advocates to learn about gay identity in China.
    In the last two decades, China's LGBT community has made huge gains in social acceptance.
    Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and a few years later it was removed from an official list of mental illnesses.
    But unlike their counterparts in the West, China's LGBT community does not have to face down strident political opposition or right-wing religious uproar.
    For them, the biggest source of pressure comes from the family, brought on in part by China's one-child policy.
    "You have only one child so you want your child to be as 'normal' as everybody else," says Xiaogang Wei, Executive Director of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute.
    "There's also the pressure of carrying on the family line," adds Chi Heng Foundation founder Chung To.
    Fake marriages?
    Many Chinese gays and lesbians are responding to the family pressure with "cooperative marriages" -- gay men and lesbian women marrying each other out of social and economic convenience, often finding each other online.
    "I grew up in the 80s and 90s and most of the people my age, everyone, got into marriage -- no matter gay or straight," says Xu Bin, founder of the advocacy group Common Language.
    "If you're not, you're a monster."
    Despite advances, the social stigma remains immense. According to a 2013 survey by U.S. research group Pew, only 21% of China's population was in favor of the acceptance of homosexuality.
    Same-sex marriage remains a taboo topic for many across China.
    And a number of clinics in China offer so-called "conversion" shock treatment to "cure" homosexuality.
    Earlier this year, a Beijing court heard China's first case to challenge the treatment. But a delay in the ruling has raised concerns in the gay community that clinics may continue to provide such treatments without challenge.
    Discrimination
    China's LGBT professionals must also contend with a lack of legal protection against discrimination at work.
    "The job discrimination is very subtle and you might not get a promotion because you are single. You might get fired because of all kinds of reasons," says To.
    "There's no protection."
    Though China has a long way to go before its gay professionals thrive professionally in all workplaces, Chinese gay activists are encouraged by the recent announcement by Apple CEO Tim Cook.
    "I think Tim Cook's coming out of the closet is very important to the Chinese society, especially in the business world," Wei tells me.
    "It also very effectively motivated people into thinking about the direct and non-direct connections between homosexual people and the products that we all use in our lives."
    New generation
    With these forces for change coming from both outside and inside China, the country's LGBT community is forging ahead, despite its unique set of challenges.
    "For the past ten years, the most change probably came from the visibility of the LGBT community in Chinese society. For the next ten years, I would say it's the visibility of LGBT rights in China," says Xu.
    As the focus shifts to a stronger call for greater rights, China's pioneering gay activists are looking to the younger generation to pick up the mantle.
    "This generation is a lot more confident and self-assertive," To tells me.
    "And they have more resources," adds Xu.
    "In the end, I think we're fighting not just for a better situation for LGBT (people), but a better situation for all minorities and vulnerable people," says To.
    Out and proud, China's gay activists are an increasingly vocal minority pushing for change that could very well reach every corner of Chinese society.