It’s a depressing thought, but to a certain extent TV defines who we are as a society. Is the increase of gay characters on TV shows in the West a reflection of greater tolerance? Or is society more tolerant because of Glee, Modern Family, Queer as Folk and The L Word?
In China, like many countries, gay characters are banned from state administered TV, film and radio. For five years Beijing-based website Queer Comrades has been getting around the censors and broadcasting talk shows, news, documentaries and fiction on LGBT-related topics.
Queer Comrades first show was a talk show about fag hags featuring rock singer Helen Feng.
‘During that time it was really hard to find people who are gay and want to show their face in front of the camera,’ says founder Xiaogang Wei. ‘So we got our supportive straight girlfriends to go on camera and say “we love our gay friends”.’
Little by little they found more gay people who were willing to be on camera.
‘In the first year we were quite ambitious,’ says Wei. ‘We didn’t have any funding. We just put all our own money into it. It was fun, but also exhausting.’
Fed up with documentaries that show the negative side of LGBT life, the team’s aim at first was to show happy, successful gay people - providing role models that were noticeably absent everywhere else.
‘In the second year we realised that, although there are a lot of happy gay people there are still people who encounter great problems,’ says Wei. ‘So we thought, maybe we cannot just only focus on happy times. We had shows about sex workers and how to come out.’
Since then they’ve made shows and documentaries about AIDS, religion, gay ‘cures’ and the Mr Gay China pageant that was cancelled by the authorities in 2010. Their latest documentary, Strong, about homophobic bullying at school, was released this week.
Last year Wei realised that to tell more stories about LGBT life in China, they had to find filmmakers beyond their circle in Beijing.
In March this year Queer Comrades held their first Queer University filmmaking training. They received 30 applications from across China, but there were only eight places available on the training course. The places were filled by applicants from under-represented groups in Chinese queer films - women, transgender people and people from rural areas. Of the eight, two were chosen to have their films funded - one about gay coal miners in Shanxi province and one about female to male transgenders.
‘It will be the first documentary talking about female-to-male in China,’ says Wei. ‘So I’m really looking forward to it. I always wanted to make a documentary about that but I don’t have access to people who are willing to tell me their story.’
The two documentaries will be released on the Queer Comrades website by September. As well as those, a film about online dating and one about mothers of gay children will be broadcast in the next few months.
Wei is under no illusion that Queer Comrade’s documentaries are high art. ‘We don’t focus on being artistic and spend months editing,’ he says. ‘We’re just a TV channel online for gay people.’
What is clear that LGBT people all over China with an internet connection are discovering that they are not alone.
‘When people find that there’s gay people on the internet they don’t feel lonely anymore.’ says Wei. ‘They know what their life can be. They have hope.’
The shows get up to 2 million views each and as it has been online since 2007, some gay people have grown up with it.
‘I was in Beijing LGBT Center and a girl came up to me and said “oh my god, I started watching your show in high school!”’ says Wei. ‘That felt really good.’
To make sure the stories of gay life in China keep reaching the people who need them, the Queer Comrades filmmakers have to exercise some self-censorship so that the website isn’t blocked by the great fire wall. Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China and Shanghai Pride had their website blocked last year.
‘We get a lot of great interviews but sometimes we have to be careful because we don’t want to excited once and then we get shutdown forever,’ says Wei.
‘I think being an activist in China is sometimes really difficult because you challenge yourself a lot. Sometimes you want to fight hard and then you just have to think of the consequences.’
So instead of criticising the government, Queer Comrades focuses on how to make things better for LGBT people in China. They are working hard to achieve that goal, but just the fact that the website exists, broadcasting real gay people onto computer screens all over China, means that they have already achieved it.
View Queer Comrade's talk shows and documentaries on their website.