This December, we wanted to hear your thoughts on COMMUNITY. We wanted to know what brings you together, gives you shelter, peace or simply a little less loneliness – and you delivered.
A Beijing-based LGBT+ collective is on a mission to create safe (and sexy) spaces for their community in a city that is far from welcoming. Here are the struggles they faced and the strategies they developed for queering safer spaces.
If you stay in China long enough, especially in its capital Beijing, you find that a lot of things can be really easy, and others really difficult. Q-space is a perfect example of what lies in-between. Q-space is a community-driven queer feminist space, founded almost four years ago, which offers a hub for queer people, especially queer women and trans people, to come together and create.
In the beginning, it was our living space, meeting point and event venue – a perfect hideaway for in-betweeners who didn't quite fit into settled categories or spaces. At that time we often rode our rainbow tricycle through the streets, sometimes wearing full-body rainbow suits to expel the evil spirits around us. Everything seemed possible, and we weren’t particularly concerned about political danger.
Back then, Q-space was just a house with a bunch of international queer friends who lived together as artists and activists, not registered as any kind of NGO or business. In order to legally receive financial support and employ staff in mainland China, queer and feminist organizations need to register as companies. The government generally doesn’t allow groups representing LGBT+ rights to register as NGOs. This is why we were self-organized, working non-hierarchically and within a super flexible structure that allowed everyone to come up with ideas, and just use the space to make them happen.
When someone asked me, is there a queer scene in Beijing? I would always answer with a sense of pride, ‘I’m living in a queer feminist commune, what do you think?’ It really was a mini queer paradise, where queer was the norm, and patriarchy was heavily criticized in everyday discussion. In Beijing, this is not at all common. I now call it a bubble that was both beautiful and fragile.
We had to move out of our space when the old city center in Beijing became increasingly gentrified. It was a time during which the political climate worsened in China, with more cases of breaches of human rights and stricter censorship through the country. After friends or organizations we liked were harassed by authorities or had their spaces randomly shut down, it became even more important for us to survive as a physical space to provide somewhere for our community to go. We wanted to create an actually safe space. Now we host feminist discussions, conversations on the #MeToo movement, and many other events that involve feminism and front line activism in China – sensitive activities that are no longer safe to be practiced in open, “official” spaces. So in order to stay safe, we have to make sure we’re off the radar.
That’s why in 2019, we created a ‘Safe Guide’ together with our fellow activist sisters. The guide includes a series of safe codes and strategies. Referring to the secret police – a unit which constantly harasses activists, inviting them for ‘a cup of tea’ to the police station to be interrogated – as ‘national treasures’, which came from the short name ‘Guo Bao’ for 'National Security Protection Bureau' in Chinese has, for example, become particularly popular among activists. Other strategies include using specific apps to communicate online, exchanging important information offline, and using private spaces for group meetings – at least until those places become known to the ‘national treasures.’
Performativity is central in surviving and negotiating safety as a space in Beijing. When we talk about activism and censorship in China, especially with direct public messages, we must play with words, a play on how and where we express ourselves. We need to carefully choose the words and categories that do not harm us or provoke the harmonious system. No hardcore manifesto, no protests, no events with radical titles. Every message we deliver to the public needs to be vague so we don’t attract attention.
‘Foreign’, ‘queer’ and ‘art’ are our ‘safe’ cards to play.
When we started the space it became known as ‘that foreigners’ house’. As a group of mostly foreigners living together and apparently partying every day in a house decorated with rainbows, we didn’t attract much attention from our neighbors, especially with the language barriers. As for the police, as long as foreigners have the right documents, they don’t bother to take a closer look.
As the government recently pushed harder regulations on foreigners, we now more and more utilize the word ‘queer’ in our communications and activities. This is because ‘queer’ is a concept not universally understood in Chinese. Like rainbow flags, it is just perceived as quirky. Therefore, we have the power to reinterpret it on different occasions and events.
This year we are one of the art spaces to be included on Beijing’s Independent Art Space map, but we don’t consider most of our activities to be artistic. However, sometimes it is safe to be included in this category. ‘Art’ is still understood as somewhat unpolitical and non-radical. Over time, ‘art space’ has become a new code. Sometimes we promote our existence as an independent art space, which protects our identity. But we know that if we are not consistent enough in the way we promote our events, the audience changes too, and our mission to serve a specific community is sacrificed.
The way forward remains unknown, but the spirit of finding and building queer safer spaces continues...