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Page last updated at 23:28 GMT, Saturday, 6 June 2009 00:28 UK

Shanghai to show pride with gay festival

Chris Hogg
BBC News, Shanghai

Gay rights supporters parade in Hong Kong - 18/5/2008
No parade will be staged, to avoid provoking Shanghai's authorities

A week-long gay pride festival gets under way in Shanghai this weekend, the first time the city has held an event like it.

There will not be a parade. The organisers took legal advice which suggested that might get them into trouble with the authorities.

Instead, there will be film screenings, talks, an art exhibition and a large, all-day party at a privately-owned venue.

Gay sex was decriminalised in 1997 in China. Before that, people used to be prosecuted under "hooliganism" laws.

Homosexuality was described officially as a mental illness in China until 2001.

Although China is a very conservative society, surveys suggest the majority of the population are reasonably tolerant of gay people.

However, there is intense pressure on young Chinese to get married, so it can be difficult for gay Chinese to be open about their sexuality.

The state-run English newspaper, the China Daily, has in the past suggested that official statistics estimate the number of gay men and women in mainland China to be around 30 million, or just under 3% of the population. It admitted, though, that few are willing to acknowledge their sexuality.

Official suspicions

The two women who head up the team organising Shanghai Pride are both Americans who live have lived in the city for a few years.

The fact that they are both foreigners is perhaps no surprise.

The Chinese government is often suspicious of any large public event, especially anything that might look like a protest or a demand for greater rights.

Tiffany Lemay (L) and Hannah Miller
The organisers hope to raise awareness in Shanghai of gay issues

"That's why we're not doing a parade," says co-organiser Tiffany Lemay.

"There are special considerations when you organise an event like this in China," she explains. "No marching. We're holding all the events at private establishments."

They feel, though, that as foreigners it is perhaps easier for them than their Chinese colleagues to promote the event.

"We can get away with more," says Hannah Miller, the other co-organiser.

They have tried to do all they can to avoid getting closed down, before the event has even begun.

"Our lawyer suggested we publish all our promotional literature only in English," Hannah says.

"The advantage of that is that it doesn't draw so much attention, or make it sound like we are trying to get people involved in gay rights or in any sort of protest."

"Basically we were told that if we framed it as a party for foreigners, as entertainment, then we would have more chance of success."

Despite this, the two women are hoping they will attract a crowd of up to 2,000 people, both foreigners and Chinese, for the party to mark the end of the week's events.

'Alternative'

Sociology lecturer Yu Hai from Shanghai's Fudan University thinks it is unlikely the authorities will try to stop it.

"Ordinary people won't be surprised, or shocked about this," he says. "There's enough space in Shanghai to hold a gay event."

FROM BBC WORLD SERVICE

And yet a few gay venues in Shanghai are not taking part because they do not want to draw too much attention to themselves as gay businesses, Pride's organisers say.

"In the past homosexuals were regarded as bad people," says the lecturer.

"Nowadays no-one thinks they are bad, but they are still considered to be 'alternative'. What's changed is that people think they are alternative, but they believe they should have their own rights, be able to make their own choices."

The two women hope the week-long festival will offer Shanghai's gay population the chance to be a little more visible.

"I'd like people in the city to understand more about gay people," Tiffany says. "That they do exist, that they're welcomed and accepted here."

"A few years ago Shanghai wouldn't have been ready for an event like this," Hannah explains. "But now," she says with a broad smile, "we feel it's the right time."



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