I’m at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) to sit in on a weekly Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) meeting. The students trickle in alone and in pairs, chatting and making themselves comfortable as they start to eat lunch. When GSA organizer and Grade 11 student Elli Hu starts off the meeting, we begin in true new media fashion by watching a YouTube video.
On the projector screen, Reverend Phil Snyder of the Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri is speaking to a panel at a city council meeting. He quotes the Bible as he delivers what appears to be an anti-gay hate speech.
But then, he says: “I’m sorry, I’ve brought the wrong notes with me this evening. I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century. It turns out what I’ve been reading to you this whole time are direct quotes from white preachers from the 1950s and the 1960s, all in support of racial segregation.”
In fact, Revered Snyder is a Christian gay rights activist. His speech happened at a time when the city of Springfield was considering whether to add gays and lesbians to a list of protected minorities.
For the remainder of the 30-minute GSA meeting, members discuss the video as well as parallels between the American civil rights movement and the current struggle for LGBT rights. “Sexuality is an aspect of biology. It’s part of your DNA. It cannot be controlled or oppressed, just like race or ethnicity,” says Hu.
Another GSA student organizer, Beverly Tan (also in Grade 11) believes that in spite of the lessons from segregation-era US, society is repeating the same mistakes when it comes to LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender) rights. “Even though African-American rights are a different topic, the concept is the same: degrading someone just because of one thing about them,” she says. “It’s just sad to see that society has not learned from the past.”
Though the battle is far from over, a growing number of American states and countries legalizing same-sex marriage is a sign that times are changing. “There are a lot of similarities between racism and homophobia, but I feel that the modern-day presence of activist groups provides the potential for a brighter and more tolerant future,” says Hu.
A “brighter and more tolerant future” is among the goals that GSA hopes to achieve. Hu and Tan say that the group often discusses the portrayal of LGBT issues in media and news events relevant to the LGBT community.
In 2012, WAB’s first openly-gay student (who has since graduated) started GSA to create a space where students could talk about issues surrounding sexuality and establish connections with their classmates.
His first step was to launch the “That’s So Straight” campaign with the goal of eliminating the negative connotations of the word “gay.” The student generated pledges from his peers and organized a week of activities designed to foster solidarity. Today, the “That’s So Straight” campaign still runs in parallel with “Ally Week,” a project that Hu and Tan developed together.
Ally Week aims to empower the LGBT community at WAB, encourage heterosexual students to stand up for their LGBT peers, and educate the greater community about LGBT issues. Every day for one week, GSA events are held in the most high-traffic places on campus.
During the previous academic year, GSA invited a panel of speakers from both the LGBT and WAB communities for a question-and-answer session. Many students asked the speakers how their sexual orientation affected their personal relationships and interactions; there was also a discussion about coming out.
“Finding out today that a loved one is gay doesn’t make them any different than they were yesterday,” says Tan. “We tend to hate and fear what we don’t understand. Take an active role in asking any questions and show your loved ones that they have your support.”
To get a first-hand account, we spoke to a current WAB student about his coming out story. His name has been withheld for privacy.
When did you come out?
I know I’ve liked guys for a while now, but when I was growing up I never actually realized that I was gay or that there was anything different about me. I came out to one of my best friends when I was about 14 or 15.
How did you come out and who did you tell first?
When I came out, I lived in a different country. I knew that I liked guys but I wasn’t sure if I liked girls. I did have girlfriends prior to that but I had never dated a guy before. I told my friends one-by-one that I was bisexual; it wasn’t actually as easy as it sounds.
The weeks before I came out, I would watch YouTube videos of people talking about their coming out stories. Most of them said that everything will be fine, but I was still really nervous about actually telling my friends. And in a way, by telling them I was also confirming to myself that it was true.
About three months after I came out to my friends, I told my parents. Out of everyone I told, I was probably the most nervous to tell them. I knew that they would accept me but I was still a little scared of not really being accepted. Before coming out to my parents, I called my friend and told her that if anything were to happen that night, I might have to sleep over at her house. Fortunately, nothing bad happened.
How did people react?
All of my friends were really supportive. Most of them said that they didn’t care and that they still thought of me as the same person. Some of them looked at me for a little while and asked if I was joking – not because they didn’t want me to be gay, but just because they didn’t expect it.
I first told my mom. I had been following her around the house for a while because I couldn’t really get myself to actually say something. Just before she went to bed, I told her that I had to tell her I liked guys. At first, she just looked at me. But then she said “OK” and we sat down and talked for a while. She asked me things like, “How long have you been feeling this way? Have you had a boyfriend? How come you haven’t told us anything before?” It actually felt really nice to be able to talk to her about it.
The next morning, my dad came into my room and he said that my mom told him I had something to say to him. So I told him and we talked for a little while. He said that he had already thought about it before but didn’t mention anything. Both of my brothers said “OK, so?” which was a huge relief.
When I came to WAB, I didn’t immediately come out since I didn’t know whether it would be OK or not. But I came out quickly since I noticed that people were so supportive.
What kind of support have you received?
My previous school was an international school as well and very open, though it was in a country where it was illegal to be gay. At the time, I didn’t really think that anything could happen to me. I did feel secure in school, but I wasn’t openly gay at first. I was actually the first person to ever come out in that school and everyone seemed to accept it. It didn’t turn out to be as big a deal as I thought it would be. People did talk about it for a little while in the beginning but I didn’t get hate about it to my face.
I found it pretty hard to accept being gay myself. My friends helped me a lot with that because I was able to talk to them about it. However, the biggest thing that helped me was that they didn’t treat me any differently than before. It made me feel normal.
I had my first boyfriend after that. We couldn’t be open about it since he wasn’t out. It was nice though to have someone that was kind of going through the same stuff. However, it was really frustrating not to be able to tell anyone, or even hold hands in public.
What’s the best part about being openly gay?
I can be myself. You might not think that your sexuality has that much to do with your personality, but I actually felt more comfortable around people and a lot happier in general. Also, being able to talk about boys to my friends is a great part about being openly gay.
What do you find most challenging?
Wondering whether people are judging you. I wonder if they actually accept me for who I am and if they don’t, if it’s only because of my sexuality. It’s also scary when I hear stories about LGBT members being beat up and wondering if that’s going to happen to me.
How does social media affect your life as an openly gay
If at all, it has only affected me positively. By being able to see others such as openly gay YouTubers or photos on Instagram, it assures me that I’m not alone.
In the last GSA meeting, we spoke about nature versus nurture. How has your environment shaped who you are and your opinion about LGBT rights?
Having gone to an international school, and now going to such an open and accepting school as WAB, has shown me that everyone should be treated equally. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what religion you believe in, or even what your sexuality is.
WAB has really taught me that I can be myself. I don’t feel different from other students in school, which makes me feel safe. And because WAB is such an accepting place, I am comfortable playing sports, which I love doing.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself prior to coming out, what would it be?
I would tell myself that everything is going to be alright and not to be scared about coming out. It seemed like such a big deal before I did it; you think that everyone around you will care, but in reality no one actually does that much.
What’s your advice to other teens that may be struggling with coming out?
You don’t have to come out as soon as possible; it’s not a race. You should come out when you think the time is right and you’re comfortable with it. For some students it might even be [in]university.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
When you suspect someone you know might be gay, don’t tell them that they’re gay; let them figure it out for themselves. If you want to them to know that you’re comfortable with LGBT [issues], you can always bring up the topic.
Beijing LGBT Center 北京同志中心
The Beijing LGBT Center is a non-profit, community-based organization for the Beijing LGBT community. They provide social services and organize advocacy programs. Their work seeks to further the LGBT movement, eliminate discrimination, and achieve quality. Visit their website for details about weekly activities, or contact them by email/phone to make an appointment.
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This article originally appeared on p24-p27 in the October 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email email@example.com.