Editor’s note: A big thank you to my friends and former colleagues at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center for the opportunity observe some of the sessions, chat with visiting activists and raid the coffee. – Stevie
As Americans honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama delivered an inauguration speech that mentioned Stonewall, more than 20 LGBT community activists from China gathered in the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Highland Annex in Hollywood. All graduates of the Center’s Emerging Leaders Program, they came together for an intensive advanced training that lasted nearly three weeks.
All of these activists previously visited L.A., usually in groups of about four, for Center internship designed to hone their skills. They’ve put those skills to good use in China, where they are pioneers in a young LGBT movement–a movement often compared to the U.S. movement 30 years ago.
But though they are tied to one another through their past connection with the Center, and some have collaborated on initiatives in China, bringing the whole group together for deep discussions about their work was unprecedented. They do diverse work in different parts of China.
David Li, the first graduate of the Emerging Leaders Program, referred to gathering the full group as “history-making.” Perhaps that was the most significant thing about the advanced training, which also included traveling to Atlanta for the Creating Change conference.
The training also included educational sessions and discussions led by U.S. movement leaders. Representatives from several prestigious LGBT organizations—including the Transgender Law Center, Lambda Legal, CenterLink, API Equality-LA, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and others—led sessions, as did Center CEO Lorri L. Jean.
On more than one occasion, a presenter noted that she or he could not tell the activists from China the best course of action to take in confronting a specific challenge. After all, the cultural and political landscape there is different from what movement pioneers faced in the U.S. The movement in China is just being formed, and these activists will count themselves among its sculptors.
Instead of offering advice, presenters answered questions and told their stories to give the visiting activists the benefit of their experiences. Court cases won—and lost. Prejudices defeated, or at least lessened. Tactics used by anti-LGBT groups and strategies for fighting back.
The sessions, translated via headsets for non-English speakers, sparked extensive discussion from the enthusiastic group. Using marker boards and easel paper, participants recorded notes and questions to delve into at a weekend retreat held in Laguna Beach.
Their discussions, and the relationships they formed, will influence what comes next for the movement in China, where already many have led groundbreaking initiatives. For example, graduates have held an International Day Against Homophobia bike ride, presented a film festival and started a PFLAG chapter. Last year, some worked together, with support from the Center, to organize the country’s first AIDS walk. The China AIDS Walk, held on the iconic Great Wall, took place in October and raised more than $20,000 for HIV/AIDS services.
More than 100 people took part in the China AIDS Walk on the country’s iconic Great Wall.
“I felt so satisfied and moved and inspired,” says AIDS walk organizer Tingting Wei. Wei says she felt an overwhelming sense of community when people came together for a common cause. It’s the same feeling described by many participants in AIDS/LifeCycle, which inspired the walk.
Li, now a full-time Beijing-based employee of the Center and partnering organization Aibai, says that he has seen China’s movement make great strides since he completed his internship in 2008. Li notes that the number of people doing activism work in China has risen steeply, with about half of his fellow graduates now employed full-time in LGBT causes. (Others are part-time workers or volunteers.) And although he hopes that still more people will come out, he had noticed an increase in publicly promoted events for LGBT people.
“I can feel that the community is thriving more,” he says.
With this group of passionate young activists at the movement’s helm, that forward momentum is sure to continue.
The activists said a bittersweet goodbye to their L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center colleagues last week. Here are some pics from the Closing Ceremony:
If you’d like to read more about the Emerging Leaders Program, check out the Frontiers story. And you can read more about the China AIDS Walk in this piece I wrote for the Center’s Vanguard newsletter (written before the event took place).