When Caroline Kitchener ’14 met activist Summer Xia while teaching abroad in China, she had no idea what she would be encountering.
To introduce Xia at a lecture on Oct. 3, Kitchener told the story of when Xia first revealed to her the details of her work as an activist. After taking a bus for an hour and a half together one Sunday afternoon, Xia took Kitchener to a “hole-in-the-wall café,” Kitchener said. At the café, Xia told Kitchener that she was president of an underground LGBTQ+ activist group at her university.
Xia explained how she felt almost entirely alone in her identity growing up in Southern China. She said that in her region, people either move to bigger cities, never to return, or stick to one job in a single town for their entire lives. She noted that she spent 17 years of her life in this kind of homogenous and heteronormative environment.
“I constantly saw straight couples living a life completely different from the one I wanted for myself,” Xia said. “It felt like being gay wasn’t a real thing.” She spoke about having her first crush on a girl in high school, but that there was no one she felt comfortable talking with because there was nobody like her.
“I knew nothing about the Chinese LGBT community,” Xia said. But after she graduated, Xia headed off to a bigger city for college.
“On campus, I learned there was an underground LGBT society called Rainbow Aliens,” she said. “With the help of Rainbow Aliens, I felt more comfortable being myself.”
Xia wanted to help facilitate the same experience for others. Approached by an LGBTQ+ activist, Xia became aware of a major issue inherent in Chinese textbooks. While the Chinese government has not referred to LGBTQ+ people as mentally ill since Chinese law was amended in 2001, many textbooks used in colleges around the country are outdated and thus still include homophobic texts.
Xia and her friend decided that it was time for the passive government to approach this issue head-on, so they filed a case and went to court. Although the court case was ultimately unsuccessful, Xia realized that she could address the textbook’s authors themselves. Forty percent of the professors contacted by Xia and her team responded positively to Xia’s remark and promised to revise their passages on LGBTQ+ people in the next edition of the textbooks.
With this success under her belt, Xia hopes that even though she cannot necessarily change the government’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights, she can slowly inform the Chinese public that LGBTQ+ people are not diseased.
Xia explained that LGBTQ+ advocacy in China is especially difficult, not just because of the homophobic reception it receives, but because the government won’t even recognize such NGOs.
“It’s harder to get together and work on the issues that they care about,” Xia said.
According to Margot Canaday, associate professor of history, who helped organize the event, Xia met some University students in class. Xia will be on campus for the rest of the week before returning to her activist work in China. Canaday was also Kitchener’s thesis adviser.
The lecture was co-sponsored by the East Asian Studies Program, the LGBT Center, the University Center for Human Values, and the Women*s Center.
The lecture, entitled “The Struggle for LGBT Rights in Mainland China: The Voice of a Student Activist,” took place at 4:30 p.m. in McCormick 101.