“Don’t say gay” is also happening in China. But it cannot turn back the clock. – The diplomat


In August, shortly after arriving at Yale as a visiting scholar from China, I watched Pray Away, a documentary about the “ex-gay” movement in the United States. In a clip from an old talk show, an “ex-gay” announcer tells the audience, “We’re just saying that if you want to change, there’s a way.”

As a gay man and activist, this message was deeply familiar to me. Just days earlier, a mother in China called me in despair after learning her son was gay. I’ve received countless calls like hers since founding China’s Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) in 2008, an organization dedicated to helping parents be more accepting of their LGBTQ children. The road to acceptance is usually slow and difficult, and this mother, like most parents initially, was more intent on changing her son than herself.

Inadvertently echoing the “ex-gay” spokeswoman, she told me, “As long as you’re determined, you can change.” She claimed that if her son could “just stay away from these people,” he could “go back to normal ” be.

This episode and my time in the United States reminded me that despite the many differences between the United States and China, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in both countries follows a similar logic: being gay or trans is a “lifestyle.” Young people must be protected from being “led astray”. Sexual orientation or gender identity can be “corrected”. In fact, many such ideas were born in the West and later brought to China.

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Unfortunately, after years of retreat, this notion that being gay or trans is like a contagion that needs to be contained or cured has regrouped and is on the rise again. We see this in the rise of “Don’t Say Gay” in the United States and in the development of analogous – albeit more far-reaching – policies in China.

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In China, new national standards classify online content related to “sexual orientations” and “gender identities” that are “different from most people” as “harmful” to youth. These standards followed entertainment industry bans targeting “sissy men” and stories with hints of same-sex romance, the closure of dozens of LGBTQ student group social media accounts and the disciplining of student advocates, and increased censorship of LGBTQ stories in the media, the dissolution of several LGBTQ advocacy groups and severe restrictions on the activities of the remaining groups.

With LGBTQ expression and advocacy edging out of the public eye, discrimination and pseudoscience are retaking the field, making the LGBTQ community, especially youth, more vulnerable. For example, a local education board in southern China last year hired a school counselor to do a case study on the treatment of a student who was “situationally gay” (meaning that the student was not “actually” gay but only transient, i.e., due to social circumstances) . The counselor explained that one reason for becoming gay is to “have exposure to gay groups while growing up”.

In September, a gay college student in Shandong committed suicide after being bullied by a homophobic school administrator. Social media accounts that criticized the school for what happened were blocked.


Nationalists in China, sensing an opportunity, have used LGBTQ issues to fuel fear and passion. They resent loudly that gays are weakening the nation because they are not masculine enough to fight foreign enemies. They accuse the LGBTQ community of being vulnerable to manipulation by foreign forces, which they will use to destabilize society. And even as more LGBTQ people are starting families in China, they are being blamed for China’s deepening demographic crisis and heralding the nation’s death.

These nationalists may find much in common with outgoing US Congresswoman Madison Cawthorn, who lamented “soft metrosexuals” and whether men “let this nation’s next generation be their last generation” — although Cawthorn once vowed to “every Chinese to seize assets in America.”

This points to something rather ironic: While moral panic promoters in the United States have called LGBTQ History Month a “left social experiment” and pray to “save America from homosexuality,” keyboard warriors in China have declared that “Capitalist decadence” and US imperialism “must not allow it to influence our youth” by exposing them to LGBTQ-related information. At least these two groups of self-proclaimed patriots — who often get itching to fight each other — can agree on one thing: “Don’t say gay.”

These two groups of Don’t Say Gay devotees have something else in common: they will fail in the end. In China, the aspirations of LGBTQ people have grown too big to force us back into the closet to live on others’ terms. We strive to live our own lives and achieve our own dreams and have built the knowledge, resources and networks to support each other in this pursuit.

And as more LGBTQ people have come out, we’ve taught more people that they have LGBTQ families, friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, students, teachers – we are everywhere and an integral part of the community. From parents to policy makers, we have found allies at all levels and in all sectors. Younger generations that grew up with LGBTQ friends are much more supportive than their predecessors. It is perhaps a testament to the power of our commitment that others are now trying even harder to suppress it.

So no matter how many times we’re told not to say gay or trans or bi, we will continue to speak up and reach out. We will continue to find ways to support each other and share stories about our lives and love. No action is too small – every message, every conversation, every new ally counts. It’s going to be difficult, but as time goes on, more and more people will come to our side. I’m confident in that, as my years of working with parents of LGBTQ children have taught me that authentic human connection casts out fear.