Courtesy of Peng Yanhui

If the pandemic had not limited international travel, Yanzi would have been in the U.S. with his long-term boyfriend, getting married. Instead, leaving his boyfriend back home in China, he is now alone in New Haven, reading in Sterling Memorial Library, and meeting Law School professors.

Peng Yanhui, commonly known as Yanzi, 39, is a visiting scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center of the Law School for the spring 2022 semester. Invited by Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at the center, he now conducts research on the topic of same-sex parenting and its potential influence on LGBTQ rights in China. 

Yanzi’s research interest originated from his working experience as the founder and former director of LGBT Rights Advocacy China, a nonprofit organization that advanced LGBT equality through China’s legal system. In 2019, he met a Chinese lesbian couple seeking a divorce. The couple got married and had two children in the U.S., with one side providing the egg and the other giving birth. The Chinese legal system, which prohibits same-sex marriage and only acknowledges the biological mother, could not decide to whom custody should be granted. Two years since the opening of the case, the court has yet to hold the first hearing. Unsure about how to proceed, Yanzi reached out to a Law School professor for legal advice.

This case exposes only one of the many lacunas in China’s society regarding LGBTQ rights. Sexual minorities are neglected in China’s legal system, and the government’s stance on the LGBTQ community may be best summarized as “no approval, no disapproval and no promotion” — in other words, silence. 

In 2016, a United Nations survey concluded that the majority of LGBTQ people in China “continue to face discrimination in many aspects of their lives, most importantly within the family, where the deepest forms of rejection and abuse reside. Access to health and social services remains difficult when one’s sexual orientation or gender diversity is known to, or even just suspected by, service providers.” 

Growing up in this hostile environment, Yanzi did not come out until he was 27. 

Sissy Pants and Nanny Boy

Yanzi was born in 1983 in Chaozhou, a small southeastern Chinese city with a strong patriarchal tradition of wishing for boys to continue the bloodline. He is the youngest child in the family with a brother and a sister, both of whom are already married. 

Yanzi’s early childhood years witnessed China’s tentative permission of research and public discourse on homosexuality, amid the continued criminalization of homosexuality. But in a conservative city like Chaozhou, homosexuality was taboo. Not only was the LGBTQ community tagged with sexual perverts, AIDS, promiscuity and mental illness, the traditional value of preserving the family lineage also added a moral burden on those violating their filial obligation. 

Yanzi grew up in Chaozhou until college. He had never heard of the concept of LGBTQ in Chaozhou and never knew what was “wrong” with himself. He just knew that he didn’t enjoy the physical education classes at all. He did not like basketball or soccer like other boys, and he would be called “sissy pants” and “nanny boy” if he joined the girls. He resorted to hiding himself in a corner with boredom and awkwardness. He said he felt sad. 

In the sixth grade, Yanzi first realized his strong desire to become friends with a boy who he often went to school in the morning with, but he thought that would be a platonic friendship. During middle school, he began to notice that girls and boys often flirted with each other, but he only had feelings for boys. “This is strange,” he thought, but he did not dare to discuss his romantic feelings with his teachers and family. He couldn’t even talk to his best friend about this. He kept the secret in the dark, alone to himself.

“It was a lot of pressure and really depressing for a very long time,” Yanzi said. This secret put an invisible wall between him and his family, friends and teachers. No matter how close they were, Yanzi knew that his sexuality was alienating him from the rest of the world. Self-loathing haunted him. He grew up feeling like he was a selfish person and had failed his family. 

“I can’t be a sexual pervert”

Things changed for Yanzi and LGBTQ community at large in 1997, when the Chinese government decriminalized homosexuality. The internet was also introduced to China around the same time. In the dawn of the new century, Yanzi headed to the burgeoning metropolis of Guangzhou, studying mechanical engineering at Guangzhou Science and Technology University. 

Yanzi first discovered the concept of homosexuality in college, but not in a positive way. The search results from online were all associated with AIDS and promiscuity. The psychology books in the library either avoided the discussion on homosexuality or categorized it as mental illness and sexual perverts. All the information he got told him that he was sick, disgusting, a freak, a pervert. Yanzi was even more scared. “How can I be sexual pervert,” he thought, “no way. I’m not, there’s no way I can be a sexual pervert.”

Yanzi did not know that the American Psychiatric Association had already removed homosexuality from the list of mental illness in 1973. The internet and the books only pushed him to deny that he liked boys. Even though China also removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders, the public continued to stigmatize LGBTQ groups. Most Chinese researchers on LGBTQ from 1980-2000 concluded that homosexuality was abnormal and usually resulted from the lack of paternal love, inappropriate upbringing, introverted personality and sexual activities at an early age. Reseachers insisted that homosexuality was unconventional, immoral, anti-social, threatening and needed to be treated to protect the society.

For a very long time, Yanzi couldn’t talk to anyone about his sexual orientation. He thought he was the only abnormal person in the world.

To be seen

During his time at Chaozhou, Yanzi had always wished for a teacher to confide in. Having moved on from middle and high school, he realized that he wanted to become a teacher like that. Studying mechanical engineering did not change his dream.

The summer of his junior year in college, Yanzi volunteered at an elementary school in Shanbei, a remote, economically underdeveloped area in northwestern China. He felt needed. He felt that his existence meant something to this world. The experience motivated him to take a gap year to be a full-time volunteer teacher. Suddenly, he was removed from daily mechanical drawings and was confronted with the heartbreaking inequality in the education system. Remembering his experiences with bullying and alienation, he was determined to become a teacher who could see the best part of each student.

After graduating from college, Yanzi took a job at a vocational school and taught mechanical drawing. One year later, he left to work for an educational nonprofit organization, where he was exposed to even more societal issues: labor movement, sustainability, educational inequality, minority rights … …

Working at a nonprofit helped Yanzi to embrace his own identity. At first, when his friends and colleagues asked him, publically or privately, “Are you gay?” Yanzi always denied out of instinct. “Of course I’m not,” he would say. “Then how come you don’t have a girlfriend?” “I … I wanna focus on my career first.” That’s what Yanzi told others, and what he tried to convince himself. 

In 2010, the Guangzhou government allocated 150 million yuan to build a lighting project near the Zhujiang river for the Asian Games. “It was a waste of money,” Yanzi thought. He decided to start a campaign on Weibo — China’s Twitter-like social media — for shutting down the program. The campaign gained huge attention from the public, the media and eventually the government, who admitted that they did not have a Feasibility Study Report for this project. “It’s like I achieved something,” Yanzi said. Living his whole life being rejected by others and himself, he discovered his niche for self-actualization through public service.

Another time, Yanzi participated in a two-day 100-mile fundraising hike through the mountains. It was in the middle of night when Yanzi and his three teammates hit 60 miles. They were all exhausted, and their progress was slow. Yanzi took the responsibility of pushing his team towards the destination. As his team moved across the finish line after hours of his cheerful encouragement, Yanzi suddenly felt empowered. “There’s nothing I need to run away from,” he thought.

That was the moment he decided to come out. He told his colleague that he wasn’t able to talk about something extremely important to him for a very long time, but he was finally ready. He waited for the colleague to ask “What is it?” His colleague never did. But Yanzi was already determined to tell his crush he liked him after the hike. He called him and repeated the same opening.

His crush said he knew it, a long time ago.

“You know, I watched the movie ‘I Love You Phillip Morris,’ it’s a comedy,” he said, “I think it could be interesting for two guys to be together.”

Yanzi was so moved by his support that he forgot to tell him “I like you.”

Becoming the plaintiff

Ever since then, Yanzi began to cherish the experience of coming out to others. He came out to his colleagues and his friends. They responded to him well. He always felt lucky that he was surrounded by people who embraced him as who he was. Indeed, only 21 percent of Chinese people believed that their society should accept homosexuality, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center.

His sexuality became more important to him as he began to embrace it. He noticed that while in recent years there were organizations dedicated to building a close-knit LGBTQ community, LGBTQ rights was still a blank area. “Someone needs to do it,” he thought. In 2013, he founded LGBT Rights Advocacy China.

The trending news at that time was about the doctors who offered drugs and electroconvulsive therapy to “cure homosexuality.” Ads of private clinics claiming that “homosexuality is a curable disease” abounded on Chinese search engines. People who survived these clinics tried to report their illegal activities. No use — the clinics were operating smoothly.

Yanzi wanted to end this torture in disguise of treatment through legal actions. He got in touch with around 30 people who had talked to some nonprofit organizations, but did not feel comfortable suing the clinics. Besides fearing to  expose their homosexuality in public, these people didn’t believe that the legal actions would make any difference. The clinics kept running every day, and Yanzi couldn’t wait for a victim to come forward. He decided to go undercover and collect evidence — by becoming the plaintiff himself. This means that he needed to be treated — by the electroconvulsive therapy — at least once.

In 2014, he went to Chongqing to visit one of the infamous clinics, Xinyu Piaoxiang. He told a friend to call the police if he didn’t contact her within two hours, turned on the recording device, and stepped inside. Yanzi introduced himself as a patient who was seeking help. “I didn’t come out to my family,” he said, “I want to try your treatment.”

The clinic brought a doctor to discuss the treatment process with Yanzi. The doctor told him homosexuality was indeed an illness, but luckily it was treatable, and they had cured many people. The whole treatment process would cost 30,000 yuan.

Yanzi paid 500 yuan for a one-time trial and got a receipt for “homosexuality treatment.” He was then led to a room that was carefully decorated in a cozy, relaxing way with a wooden floor and meditation paintings. The doctor pulled out an electronic device and asked Yanzi to lie down and breathe deeply. He then began to hypnotize Yanzi.

“Imagine a scene of having sex with man,” he said. “Move your finger if you feel any physical or mental reaction.”

Yanzi was immersed in the imagination of what was one of the most beautiful things to him in the world when the doctor suddenly shocked his hand. “Ah!” He immediately jumped off, screaming, “What was that? I was shocked.” The doctor put away the device and told him that was the point — to be shocked when imagining having sex with men, so that he would grow sick of it. He explained that in a usual treatment session, the patient would be shocked two or three times in one hour. There would be 30 sessions in total.

Even though Yanzi knew he was in the clinic to be shocked, he was nevertheless traumatized by the experience. He fled. That night he stayed at a youth hotel with many people. He was scared, but he was ready to prosecute the clinic. 

Chinese Court Ruled Homosexuality Isn’t Illness

Even today, the Chinese legal system still lacks relavent anti-discrimination law for sexual minorities. In order to protect the LGBTQ rights, the best strategy, according to Yanzi, is to file the cases with other causes admissible under Chinese law and try to bring LGBTQ rights into the conversation during the hearings.

Yanzi did not have high expectations for the court when he filed the lawsuit against the clinic for service contract disputes and also sued the search engine Baidu for advertising the clinic. This was unprecedented. To his surprise, Beijing’s court agreed to hold the hearing. Yanzi spreaded the words to media and LGBTQ organizations. When the court held the hearing in July 2014, people showed up in front of the court for support. Across from the police, the media stood with Yanzi’s supporters. Between these two rows of people, Yanzi, along with his volunteer lawyer from the nonprofit organization Beijing LGBT Center, walked into the court.

The hearing lasted four hours. When the judge asked Yanzi to describe what happened in the clinic, Yanzi couldn’t help but keep trembling. It had been five months since his treatment, but the shock still felt vivid. The clinic doctor’s not having a medical license became the crucial advantage for Yanzi. In December 2014, the court ruled that the clinic’s treatments were illegal and demanded that the clinic pay Yanzi 3,500 yuan in compensation and post an apology on its website. The court rejected Yanzi’s accusation against Baidu, however.

The most notable quote in the judge’s ruling was “homosexuality is not a disease, therefore the clinic had no basis to undertake treatment.”

It was absolutely the first ruling of its kind in China. For the first time, there was a Chinese legal document that stated that homosexuality is not a disease. The ruling made a sensation among Chinese and foreign media. In the following days, not only did numerous state media oulets report on the ruling, foreign readers also saw headlines such as “Chinese Court Rules Against Clinic in Country’s First ‘Gay Conversion’ Case” from Wall Street Journal and “Chinese Court Sides With Gay Man in ‘Conversion’ Suit” from The New York Times. It was a moment of triumph and hope. After decades of stigamatization and discrimination, the silent majority of China’s LGBTQ community saw the hope that perhaps sometime in the future, they could live proudly, away from the shadow.

The news spread to Yanzi’s hometown Chaozhou. Yanzi’s brother called to tell him that his family and relatives hoped he could remain low-key about this matter and not talk about it. Yanzi’s parents didn’t want to accept that their son was gay. They have never talked about it with Yanzi. It became the elephant in the room, but at least they stopped pressuring him to get married.

“I think it’s a good thing for me,” Yanzi said, “we live in peace with each other.” 

Won 6 Cases, Lost 5 Cases and 188,383 Public Opinions Urging for Same-Sex Marriage

Over the years, Yanzi has worked on 13 cases for LGBTQ rights. When China Southern Airlines fired a flight attendant after he came out, when a kindergarten fired a teacher for sharing articles about LGBTQ and when companies fired employees who were diagnosed with HIV, Yanzi and his organization helped them sue their employers for employment discrimination. In addition, Yanzi and his organization also assisted students and volunteers to inquire of the government when its document described homosexuality as mental illness or sexual pervert. When the government failed to provide a sufficient reason to justify its statement, Yanzi would help file a lawsuit of an unsatisfactory response from government information disclosure.

Yanzi lost every case against the government but won some against private companies. Eleven out of the 13 cases went through the court. He won six. Even though he was never able to directly file a case based on discirimination against LGBTQ, Yanzi made sure that the attorneys would mention the discrimination during the hearings so that the court transcripts and rulings would include LGBTQ topics. When the system was trying to silence a community, the first step was to become a voice, to let people know that their voice exists and matters.

In 2019, China published the Civil Code of the People’s Republic of China. When the government opened to the public for legal opinions during the legislative session, Yanzi and his organization encouraged the public to speak out. “It’s been 20 years since the marriage law last changed,” they wrote in a poster, “ if we keep silent now, most people from LGBTQ community will live in remorse.”

188, 383 people submitted their opinions to the government, and most of them urged for the legalization of same-sex marriage. This number was unprecedented. At a routine press conference, the government spokesperson recognized the fact that many suggestions regarding same-sex marriage were received, but did not make further comments.

This marked the first occasion in which the government officially acknowledged the topic of  same-sex marriage. Later, in another government meeting, Yanzi was told that China’s traditional value of family and marriage was not compatible with same-sex marriage, and more research would be needed. 

What Now?

2021 was a difficult year for LGBTQ groups in China. On July 7, the Chinese government shut down the online channels of dozens of LGBTQ advocacy groups initiated and operated by college students. In one night, all the stories about the lives of LGBTQ groups disappeared, all the articles that called for LGBTQ rights and anti-discrimination vanished and all channels were renamed as “unnamed channel.” Today, it is impossible to find any trace of their existence online, as if all the efforts were but a dream dissipated in the wind. 

That night, amidst anger, frustration and hopelessness, over 400 strangers met online and held a funeral for what they fought for. The meeting lasted around three hours. Over 400 broken hearts tried to pull together when their world was falling apart. “Everyone has the right to love and be loved,” they said. “The world is colorful, why can’t love be that way,” they said.

“I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u I love u l love u, even though I don’t know who u r but I just wanna let u know that I love u,” they said to each other.

Yanzi’s organization did not escape from this same fate. In China, all LGBTQ organizations are automatically considered illegal and cannot be registered with the government. So when the police showed up in November 2021, Yanzi had no choice but to shut down his organization.

Yanzi knew it all along that this was going to be a slow, painful fight. Sometimes he simply couldn’t understand why the psychology textbooks still called homosexuality as a mental illness after all these years. He felt that the movement for sexual minorities did not make enough progress to help the suffering people. Sometimes, he felt powerless.

But he always believed that there would be a way out, and that eventually, every member of the LGBTQ community could live with the rights endowed to every citizen. He was always trying to keep hope for himself and others. Sometimes he would intentionally ask volunteers to help with tasks that he could finish by himself. “I want more people to engage in this process,” he said, “not because the result will necessarily be better, but because this process itself will make people feel like we are still fighting, because we still have hope.”

The cases he lost did not discourage him because he had never derived motivation primarily from winning the cases. “These are important,” he said, “but I think it is more like I cannot turn away from the people I met in this process.”

The people Yanzi met include a man who called for help to rescue his gay friend who was sent to psychiatric hospital by his family and had to leave his hometown to live a normal life; a Chinese reporter in Australia who longed to go back to his hometown but couldn’t live in the hostile anti-LGBTQ environment; all the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers from his generation who grew up with stigma and self-negation and never accepted themselves as who they really were.

Many of the people Yanzi met surrendered to social and family pressure, got married and had children. They pretended as if nothing had happened, all whilst they were at war with themselves each day, sunk into exhaustion and would not be further troubled by hope. All those stories reminded Yanzi that advocating for LGBTQ rights is not a profession, but a calling.

But the LGBTQ group shutdown hit him hard. For the first time, he couldn’t see himself, his career and the LGBTQ movement in China clearly. What now? What should be the next step? He didn’t know. The walls were closing in and there was no way out.

Coming to Yale is a recovery for Yanzi. “Yale gives me lots of space to explore, and it’s like, like, everyone is supporting me here.” The past four weeks on campus have been a rare time, during which he is no longer under immense pressure and no longer need to worry about his safety. He is happy when having hotpot with his colleagues outdoors to celebrate the Lunar New Year in a world of ice and snow. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is cold,’” he said, “but everyone is so supportive.” He is happy to see so many people returning to campus.

“I feel like Yale is such a good school, and I don’t deserve to be here.” Yanzi said. “But I think they also value my experience. They are really, really supportive. I feel happy.”

Yanzi never hides his excitement when conducting research at the Paul Tsai China Center. He cherishes every moment in his office reading scholarly publications on same-sex parenting. From his academic preparation, he has come to realize that the traditional Chinese culture doesn’t need to be a barrier, but leverage for the LGBTQ community and their movement. If he starts from the angle of same-sex parenting, the public will perhaps learn to empathize with children of same-sex couples and the structure of same-sex families could become more easily accepted. Slowly, the feeling that “maybe there is something I could do” has returned.

“It’s so good, too good, all too good here,” Yanzi said, and said it again and again.