Pride events are held across China, with the largest in Shanghai every year.

Story highlights

Pride events are held across China, but LGBT people often face discrimination

Homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China only 15 years ago

Editor’s Note: Lilian Shen and Thorben Pelzer are volunteers and organizers at ShanghaiPRIDE, China’s longest running pride event. The views expressed below are their own.

Shanghai, China CNN  — 

China has come a long way since homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness 15 years ago.

In 2014, courts finally ruled against therapy to “correct” homosexuality (though the practice still persists in some areas), and many companies openly pursue the pink dollar, catering to wealthy LGBT audiences with a wave of rainbow logos, especially after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

At the same time however, in Beijing, activists are unable to organize a proper pride festival due to official pressure, while in March 2015, five feminists activists with ties to the LGBT community were detained for 37 days for planning protests as part of an anti-sexual harassment campaign.

Often, it seems like the government cares less about the purpose of the protest than the threat of large numbers of people congregating in a single location.

Shanghai, with its rich cosmopolitan history, has typically been more lenient. ShanghaiPRIDE is entering its eighth year, making it the longest running pride festival in China.

Blazing a path

Provided “social order” is not disrupted, authorities have shown neither opposition or support.

ShanghaiPRIDE’s pioneering work of staking out the boundaries of what is tolerated has also served as an inspiration for other cities, like Guangzhou and Chengdu, which have held their own pride festivals in recent years.

Slow progress

Across China, designated LGBT spaces remain few in number compared to mainstream venues. In big cities, there are more gay venues, but even where these exist, places catering to lesbians and other queer minorities are hard to come by, even in Shanghai.

While Chinese regulators censor the display of any homosexual content on television (categorized as inappropriate sexual content, together with incest and polygamy), there is a large online community that fosters greater acceptance for LGBT individuals, especially among the younger generations.

There are also celebrities like Jin Xing, the first Chinese trans-person to become a household name who, while she keeps herself distant from the LGBT community, serves as an icon and trailblazer.

Lack of support

China seems nowhere close to legalizing same-sex marriage, though a recent landmark lawsuit, the first of its type accepted by the a Chinese court, was a step in the right direction, even if the plaintiffs were ultimately unsuccessful.

Expected progress in Taiwan under a new government may also add further momentum in the future, but other fundamental issues remain.

According to a study under the UN Development Program, only 5% of China’s LGBT population is open about their sexual or gender identity at school or work, with 17% open to their families. LGBT people are not legally protected from hate crimes, nor are they protected from discrimination at work. People living with HIV have been receiving greater support in recent years, but social stigmas must still be fought.

Family pressure to get married to someone of the opposite sex also remains high, with around 80% of gay men expected to marry women, according to one estimate.

These issues reflect the need for safe spaces and support systems, even as the number of LGBT organizations has grown in recent years.

Space to grow

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, almost 200 LGBT organizations across China issued a joint statement to call for an end to “all forms of violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression” and express solidarity with the victims.

This cooperation is what creates a community, and there is still space to grow. Space to learn, to build, to make alliances, to share tears and laughter, to keep fighting for progress not merely in law, but in society as a whole.