Written by Tessa Qiu, Committee member, Queer Asia 2017.
The Queer Asia 2017 conference invited Uyghur sociologist and doctor at the French National Institute for Oriental Studies (INALCO), Dilnur Reyhan, to take part in a discussion on queer and LGB lives in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Centering on Reyhan’s recent fieldwork with LGB Uyghur individuals in Xinjiang and the diaspora, a poignant and seldom-heard conversation proceeded between Dilnur, Chinese queer feminist activist Li Maizi, activist and artist Whiskey Chow, and researcher on ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in contemporary China, Séagh Kehoe. Our thanks go to Iskandar Ding for acting as interpreter.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, established by the People’s Republic of China in 1955, is home to the Uyghurs, a Turkic speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic group. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategies since the Open Up the West campaign, launched in 2000, to rapidly develop western China economically, led to an increase in social and ethnic tensions. Restrictions on cultural and religious practices and on the teaching of Uyghur language in schools, employment discrimination, high levels of Han migration into the region and draconian security measures to fight so-called ‘terrorism’ and achieve ‘interethnic harmony’ have added to these tensions in recent years.
Confronted by PRC discourse which shows low regard for their religious beliefs, Reyhan suggests that some Uyghurs respond with the sentiment that Islam offers Uyghurs a moral compass (which they consider Han people as lacking). Uyghur peoples’ ethnic loyalty, resistance to Han hegemony, and hostility towards Chinese and Western ideas and culture (described by many of Reyhan’s subjects as “the worst influence of the west on Uyghur culture”) are evident in attitudes towards homosexuality. Points in the discussion also showed a concern that LGBT+ and feminist issues may be co-opted by the state in service of pushing assimilation and celebrating Han values as ‘progressive’.
Reyhan’s research highlights this “minority stress” faced by queer Uyghur individuals, who feel discriminated against by Han Chinese and oppressive state policies, as well as a frustration at the closed-mindedness of their “heterosexual” Uyghur communities. There was no word for homosexuality in the Uyghur language until the recent invention of the word ‘hemjislik’. With even heavier restrictions than the rest of China on access to foreign websites, Dilnur highlights the absence of a foundation to LGBTQIA+ concepts as being a barrier to talking about these issues. Whilst gay bars and LGBT organisations exist in Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region, they are more hidden and harder to keep running than in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, so individuals tend to turn to internet sites and dating apps to socialise. ‘LGBT’ organisations in Urumqi exclusively target HIV/AIDs prevention (Xinjiang is China’s second most affected region in China), and have been known to be discriminatory towards Uyghurs; individuals can be rejected service if they don’t speak Mandarin. Whiskey pointed out parallels with the emergence of LGBT organisations in other parts of China in the 1990s which were able to exist due to the HIV/AIDs threat, and thus focussed on gay male communities and MSM.
Reyhan’s work was contextualised through Li’s examples of the islamophobia and racism towards Uyghurs throughout the rest of China, and Kehoe highlighted the challenges in finding intersectionality in the Chinese queer and feminist movements. Whilst both queer people and Uyghurs struggle in many ways in the PRC, queer Uyghurs with their ‘minority stress’ face difficulties in terms of belonging to both LGBTQ communities and as part of a ‘Chinese’ national identity.
This blog forms part of a series on LGBTQI+ issues in Asia, authored by or for Queer Asia, a network of queer identifying scholars, academics, activists, artists and performers working on issues affecting people self-identifying as LGBTQ+ or belonging to other non-normative sexualities and gender identities in Asia, Asian diasporas and beyond. For regular updates, follow them on Facebook and Twitter.