The China Law Center Holds Conference on Homosexuality in China
"Public discussion of sexual orientation is new in China," says Jeffrey Prescott '97, a senior fellow of the China Law Center based in Beijing. He says that one aim of the conference was to bring homosexual issues to the attention of "mainstream" scholars and officials in China. But Prescott adds, "The workshop had another function, which was to bring young gay activists from around China together, at an official event between two prestigious institutions, to build their own connections and hopefully strengthen their capacity to change their society."
The two primary Chinese co-organizers of the conference were Zhou Dan--one of China's only openly gay lawyers, who is active in research and policy debates about gay and lesbian rights and was a visiting scholar at The China Law Center last year--and Sun Zhongxin--a sociology professor at Fudan University who is teaching China's first undergraduate course on homosexuality. Dozens of other Chinese scholars, students, and government officials attended the conference.
Paul Gewirtz, director of the China Law Center and the Potter Stewart Professor at YLS, led a delegation that included a interdisciplinary set of experts, including William Eskridge, the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at YLS and a leading expert in sexuality and the law; George Chauncey, professor of history at the University of Chicago and a top U.S. social and cultural historian; Pamela Karlan '84, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School; and Judith Stacey, professor of sociology and professor of gender and sexuality, New York University. Hon. Michael Kirby, a Justice on the High Court of Australia, and a member of YLS's annual Global Constitutionalism Seminar, also actively participated in the discussion and gave a riveting speech on HIV/AIDS and public health issues.
Homosexuality has an ambiguous legal status in China. The government has removed formal legal obstacles to homosexual life, but sporadic harassment and punishment still occur, along with official discrimination. At the same time, broad economic and social changes have created an increasingly permissive social atmosphere, and homosexual issues are starting to get more attention in the Chinese media.
Nonetheless, many of the participants in the conference related that it was their first chance to speak openly about such issues and to share their knowledge and experiences. Zhou Dan, the co-organizer, said that, "The Workshop was ground-breaking for China. This unprecedented high-level event allowed us to openly explore the road forward for gays and lesbians in China."
Through five discussion sections, the workshop-goers debated issues ranging from theories of sexuality and sexual orientation to how the government should address sexuality when dealing with a public health crisis like HIV/AIDS.
Openness became a theme of discussion at the conference. For instance, in one panel, participants discussed the tendency for workers in China to hide their sexuality at work and whether greater openness would ameliorate discrimination in the workplace.
How to fight HIV/AIDS in China was a particularly pressing topic of discussion. The rate of HIV/AIDS infection among the gay community has risen alarmingly. Participants in the conference discussed the benefits and drawbacks of the fact that the Chinese government has identified homosexuals as a "target group" for HIV/AIDS work. The risk is that this designation will further stigmatize homosexuals. On the other hand, it has created an opportunity for gay and lesbian organizations to operate in China and an umbrella under which to seek more government and international assistance and attention.
In a closing session, participants turned their thoughts to the future--discussing the appropriateness of seeking equal marriage and family rights under the law, for example. Many agreed with one professor who stressed the importance of "education and awareness" in creating a more open environment for gay and lesbian citizens in China.
"One remarkable exchange came toward the end of the conference," recalls Prescott. "One of China's senior legal scholars, who had remained silent through most of the discussion, raised his hand to speak. He said that he had not previously given much thought to homosexuality, and probably would have counted himself among those who 'demonized' it. He said his participation in the workshop had changed his views completely, and he planned to add homosexuality to a list of topics for his own forthcoming study on discrimination in China."
The China Law Center is currently working on a book on homosexuality and the law in China related to the Conference and discussing further avenues for cooperation with the co-organizers at Fudan University.