International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) 2011:
Coming Together to Eliminate Discrimination
May 17th is celebrated by communities worldwide as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). The day celebrates the anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s decision to remove non-heterosexual sexual orientations (homosexuality and bisexuality) from the 10th Edition of the International Classification of Diseases, published in 1990. However, despite this positive development, efforts still need to be stepped up, both at the national and global levels to eliminate discrimination against men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people (TG).
Phobia and Discrimination: Critical Obstacles to the Response to HIV
Although China is not one of the 85 countries which criminalize consensual same-sex behaviors among consenting adults, and homosexuality is no longer considered as a mental illness in China, since the publication of the 3rd Edition of the Chinese Classification of Mental Diseases 10 years ago, homophobia and transphobia still contribute to discrimination against sexual minorities. Fear and shame can drive MSM and transgender people underground, increasing their vulnerability to HIV infection and preventing them from seeking HIV-related information and services. What is more, there are no laws in China specifically protecting the rights of MSM and TG people. It is not surprising therefore that HIV prevalence is increasing most rapidly among these highly stigmatized and vulnerable groups. HIV prevalence estimate among MSM was at 5 percent in 2009, 88 times higher than the overall national prevalence, and in some areas, HIV prevalence among MSM was approaching 20 percent. What is more, almost one third of new HIV infections are amongst MSM, and this figure has continued to increase in recent years.
China has an emerging MSM community. The latest country-wide estimates put the number of MSM and TG in China was estimated at between 5 and 10 million., and there are approximately 300 community based organisations (CBOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which work actively with MSM.
According to Professor Li Yinhe, China’s most prominent expert in sex and gender studies is based at the Institute of Sociology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Professor Li believes that homosexual and transgender people hide their sexual orientation because they know the severe consequences of being a minority in Chinese society. ‘It is an unspoken social rule that everybody must do the same thing as other people do at the same stage in their lives. Being different, choosing different lifestyles means paying a high price. For example, people who are still single in their 30s. People who have non-heterosexual orientations feel huge pressure from family, friends, and even the whole society. The power of gossip is no weaker than punitive laws,’ Professor Li said.
Some people blame MSM and transgender people because they believe they are responsible for spreading HIV. Professor Li Yinhe points out that MSM and TG people should not be considered as criminals who cause and exacerbate the HIV epidemic. ‘It is the risky, unprotected sexual behaviours, not homosexual and transgender people, that responsible for sexual transmission of HIV.’ Li says, ‘HIV-related discrimination against some groups, based on their sexual orientation, is totally ungrounded.’
Studies have showed that most MSM in China eventually marry women and have children. Dr. Zhang Beichuan from Qingdao Medical School, one of China’s most respected scholars on sexual minorities, concludes that such phenomena are a result of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. He associates homophobia and transphobia with the traditional responsibilities of building up a family and having children. ‘It has been almost impossible to separate sex and reproductive responsibility in China for centuries.’ Zhang says, ‘It is the major responsibility for men, both as men and as sons, especially when they are the only son in their family.’
According to Wang Jun from the China MSM Tongzhi Health Forum, the primary advocacy task for community-based organizations and individual advocates is to create better legal and social environments that ensure MSM and transgender people are not excluded by the general public. ‘HIV-positive MSM are usually labeled as ‘HIV-positive’ and ‘homosexual’, labels which are both heavily stigmatized. Being doubly labeled in this way leads to double the level of discrimination.’ Wang explains. ‘As a result, homophobia and transphobia continue to prevent MSM from disclosing their sexual orientations and accessing HIV services.’
A transgender person is a person who has a gender identity different from his or her sex at birth. Transgender people may be males who identify as females, or females who identify as males. Compared to homosexual people, transgender people draw much less attention from the public in China. Wang Jun believes this neglect is, in itself, an indicator of discrimination. ‘Invisibility and silence, as the status quo, demonstrate that transgender people are being ignored and under-represented,’ Wang Jun says, ‘the vicious cycle this leads to makes discrimination even more serious.’
Government, Media and Civil Society Organizations: Joint Efforts Essential
In the response to HIV, government, media and civil society organizations can each play powerful, irreplaceable roles in eliminating homophobia and transphobia. The messages they spread and actions they take can have great and lasting impacts on people.
Dr. Zhang Beichuan believes that government should take the lead to eliminate discrimination based on homophobia and transphobia from the top down. ‘In China, one small step taken by the government results in a giant leap for the whole of society,’ Zhang says. ‘If the authorities open their minds, say the right things, and take bold actions to make changes at the policy and legislative levels, sexual minorities will live a better life, free of discrimination.’
The media has significant impact on Chinese people’s ways of thinking and daily lives. Issues around homosexuality and transgender have become less taboo and gained more coverage in traditional media than ever before. However, Dr. Zhang Beichuan believes that state-owned media like Xinhua, CCTV and People’s Daily should talk a lot more about MSM and transgender people’s rights. ‘Their absence from official media indicates insufficient political will.’ Zhang adds, ‘China should learn from other developing countries, and, as an emerging world power, avoid falling behind.’
The social media and new media worlds pay close attention to such topics as well. ‘Homosexual and transgender people in China have been extremely active on the Internet for years,’ notes professor Li Yinhe. ‘They come into public view, find peers and support each other there. The Internet has become a powerful tool for empowering sexual minorities in China, and this is a very positive trend.’
In Wang Jun’s opinion, media creates a bridge between sexual minorities and majorities. ‘People fear homosexual and transgender people because they know little about these people. Normally, fear fades away when they have a chance to get to know us.’ Wang says, ‘On one side, traditional media, social media and new media can help people to learn more about LGBT populations. On the other side, homosexual and transgender groups must make the most of all kinds of media to present themselves positively and build up platforms and networks, so that the general public can learn more about who we are.’
Community-based civil society organizations have worked for years at the grassroots level, seeking to combat homophobia and transphobia in China. It is of vital importance to ensure sufficient and sustainable capacity in such community-based organizations to allow them to play a greater role in addressing issues around discrimination. ‘We need continuing support from government departments, such as the Ministry of Health and CDC, as well as international organizations like WHO and UNAIDS.’ As Wang Jun points out, ‘We can’t exercise our rights if we don’t have enough capacity. We hope to get access to more resources and opportunities to enhance the capacity of grassroots NGOs.’