Editors' note: Dr. Caitlin Ryan is the Director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, a community research, intervention, education and policy initiative that studies the impact of family acceptance and rejection on the health and mental health of LGBT youth. She has been working with providers, families and community groups to develop an international movement of family acceptance to promote wellness and healthy futures for LGBT children, youth and young adults.
The students penciled these words in careful calligraphy in English on the wall of their tiny LGBT center in the mega university complex so the landlord wouldn't understand that this is a center for LGBT students:
"We are gay and lesbian youth in our 20s studying in Guangzhou colleges and universities. We came together and became friends with a common goal to make a better environment for ourselves. We hope to make a better future.
All human being are born free and equal for dignity and rights. We have courage and we are proud to embrace diversity. We will continue to fight against injustice against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identity."
Their building is in a rundown neighborhood near the university mega center and hidden behind painted concrete walls erected by the government. It takes many turns and tries to find it since the entrance is not marked. The neighborhoods were once small villages that are now connected by a series of small shops that ring a farmers market. No one would expect that behind these old peeling walls is a rainbow flag, LGBT resources and a welcoming space for LGBT and questioning students and their allies.
This is the first student-led and student-run organization in China. LGBT youth and allies help run the center, coordinate educational and social activities and provide mutual support. Several are skilled artists and one has developed a series of popular characters that enliven posters to advertise local gay support activities and promote HIV prevention. Along with their Chinese names, LGB students and allies have western names and nicknames, like "Rainbow."
We pile into an old van and drive to my presentation at the University of Foreign Studies on the work of the Family Acceptance Project. Many social work students attend, as well as undergraduate students from other fields, including finance, journalism and economics. In fact, they quickly decide to move my session to a larger room to accommodate all the students who want to attend.
I discuss some of our research findings about how family accepting and rejecting behaviors affect their LGBT children's health and mental health. For example, our research shows that specific rejecting behaviors - like trying to change your child's gender expression, not talking about or asking them to keep their LGBT identity a secret or physical abuse because of their identity - increase their risk for illegal drug use, depression, suicide and HIV as a young adult.
The students have many questions about homosexuality, about how gay people have children and about the differences between children raised in gay and heterosexual families. But they also understand the social stigma and shame that prevent gay people from coming out to their families and the deep need to promote family support for LGBT peers in a society where the family is the basic unit and heart of the culture.
I have found in my international work in Latin America, Mexico, Spain and Portugal and now China where families are central in the lives of their children, the work of the Family Acceptance Project deeply resonates for them.
During my trip, I hear a young lesbian say, "In China, we say that children are the kites and their parents are the lines. No matter how high their children fly, their parents will hold the lines and be connected to them."
After the presentation, one student writes to me:
"In China, most parents think the homosexuals are ill. If they know their kids are gay, they may say something like 'How I wish I didn't give birth to you.' In rural areas, it's more unacceptable, and the farmers are even more traditional.
But I saw a hopeful light today.
"I think your precious research can help a lot of people especially in China because no one tells the parents what they do can make things better."
After meeting and spending time with these LGBT and heterosexual students who are working hard to learn about LGBT issues, educate their peers and promote equity and respect, I feel very hopeful, as well.
Now on to Beijing for a 2-day conference of parents with LGBT children and families, and a series of presentations on our work with families - including immigrant Chinese families with LGBT children - whose kites are still connected here.