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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 21, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 42
Marsha Botzer in Beijing: Activist reports on China
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Marsha Botzer in Beijing: Activist reports on China

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Seattle activist Marsha Botzer spent 15 days in China last month, working with Chinese LGBT activists. Recently she sat down with SGN to talk about her experiences.

'I met some amazing young activists - all of them under 30,' she said. 'Since China is China they're going to guide the world.'

Although the numbers are hard to document, China, the world's most populous country, certainly has an enormous LGBT community.

'Oh, millions!' Botzer exclaimed. 'The largest LGBT population in the world! That's why it's going to make a difference.'

Then she laughed, 'So many people - I'll never complain about Seattle traffic again!'

Botzer traveled to China as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.

'The Chinese asked for delegations from the U.S.,' Botzer explained, 'people with expertise in some area, and I went representing Trans people.'

According to Botzer, her delegation enjoyed complete freedom of access to the local LGBT community.

'I never saw anyone watching us, never saw overt control,' Botzer told SGN. 'I could walk out of my hotel and get in a taxi and go wherever - cheap taxis, too!'

'The government position is not anti-Gay,' she explained, 'but they also don't want a public display of organizing. You couldn't have a big conference like Gender Odyssey or Creating Change.'

Although Botzer did visit tourist sites like Beijing's Forbidden City, the palace complex of China's former emperors, she was meeting with Chinese LGBT activists 'all day long, and most nights.'

'We met with our counterparts in their homes, in cafes, and in the center they created [in Beijing],' she said.

The Beijing center opened in 2008, Botzer said, the result of a project begun in 1998, the year same-sex relations were decriminalized in China.

Botzer says her Chinese colleagues face many of the same issues the LGBT movement in the U.S. once tackled.

'How do you organize? They have no models for that. How do you talk about different sexual orientation and gender identity? How do you reach out to people? How do you distribute safe sex information, condoms?' While the Chinese are just now grappling with these problems, their approach is thoughtful and businesslike, Botzer said. 'It's pretty mature organizing,' she observed. 'When you want to start a group, you write a formal proposal. & When I finally met up with Trans folks, I became friends with one young activist. When she decided to become an activist, her first move was to write a paper on what Trans folks need and how to do outreach to them.

'They know what to do, and they're doing it,' Botzer continued, 'education, being open, creating newsletters and archives, using the internet too - but it's different there, you're not able to put up the same resources.'

Botzer observed that while some issues her Chinese colleagues face are similar to those encountered by LGBT folks in the U.S., others are very different.

'Of course, they ask 'What are the oppressions? What are the limitations of the system?' but equally powerful are the expectations of family.

'They have freedoms we don't have. There's no religious right, for example - although U.S. religious organizations have come to China.

'But the family expectations - 'matrimonial procreation' - the layers of family, and what all that means is different, and very complex.'

The pressure of family expectations that every Chinese boy or girl will someday marry and have children can be almost unbearable, Botzer says.

'I was at a meeting with Beijing PFLAG and we talked about coming out, and one young man just started to cry - 'I can't, I can't, I have to get married &' If you come out, you have a problem with your family, you have a problem at work - a lot of different things.

'You could almost feel the weight of all that on these folks. You could see when people wanted to practice their English - they could say in English things they couldn't say in Chinese.

'People were amazed we were able to stand up and say 'I am!' In my case 'I am Trans' - I do all the time but they were like, 'Wow!'

There is LGBT representation in the Chinese media, Botzer says, but outlets are tightly controlled.

'There were some pictures of the Gay marriage [in January 2010] being shown around,' Botzer says. 'There are glossy Gay images. There are some filmmakers - one I met had done a documentary about drag queens. It was shut down, so he had to find other avenues of distribution.'

Although she met and befriended Chinese Trans activists, Transgender issues are not well known in China, Botzer tells SGN.

'About Trans issues, there's a general idea - so I'm told - that it's an illness that can be cured by surgery.

'The government outlawed hormones in the pharmacy - I'm told, but I can't verify this - and people desire information about what hormones can do and what they can't do.

'I gave them the new WPATH Guidelines [on medical treatment for Transgender people],' Botzer added, 'and they took all my Ingersoll [Gender Center] pamphlets. Very soon we'll see what they can adapt for their particular needs.'

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