Karolyn Li remembers reading the brochure of the prestigious Tsinghua University in China when she was in high school and preparing to apply for university. It highlighted a graduate who co-founded an LGBTQ rights group, a suggestion of campus inclusivity that surprised Ms. Li, who identifies as queer.
Ms. Li eventually enrolled in Tsinghua. Now a 21-year-old junior, Ms. Li takes the brochure as cruelly ironic. She and her friend, Christine Huang, a 23-year-old senior, have been fighting a losing battle against the university and the country’s education authorities over gay and transgender expression over the past year.
When the two women handed out rainbow flags on campus last year and resisted school administrators who confronted them, the university issued a punishment that would remain on their permanent records. When they tried to place flowers outside the dormitory of a transgender classmate who died by suicide in March, they were surrounded by security. When they posed for a photo with rainbow flags in May, a university employee ran up to them and told them not to post the images online.
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“Adding all these things together to wonder, How did it get so bad?” said Ms. Huang, who identifies as a lesbian.
In late May, they were told by a court in Beijing, where Tsinghua is, that they would not accept a lawsuit they had filed against the country’s education ministry seeking to overturn the university’s sentence for the flag incident.
Ms. Huang and Ms. Li’s experiences indicate that the space for even subtle gay and transgender expression is shrinking in China. As the ruling Communist Party has tightened its scrutiny of ideology and civil society, nationalist commentators on social media have sought to portray Chinese LGBTQ activist groups in particular as a tool of hostile foreign forces.
One of the main accusations against such groups is that they “cause conflict within society for the purpose of destabilizing society,” said Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
In May, police arrived in the eastern city of Hangzhou arrested six gay men for 13 days for participating in what the report called “lewd activities,” where their names were disclosed. That same month, the Beijing LGBT Center, a well-known advocacy group, closed after 15 years of operation, citing forces beyond its control.
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The dissolution of the Beijing group crushed Ms. Huang, who made monthly donations to it. She said the center made people feel safe, citing a friend who went there for low-cost counseling.
Civil society groups in China have long navigated ill-defined and constantly shifting margins of official tolerance, with activists often threatened with arrest. Mrs. Huang and Mrs. Li were born in the early 2000s, a period when authorities relaxed social controls somewhat. Homosexuality has been removed from China’s list of mental illnesses. Organizations such as Shanghai Pride were able to organize large public celebrations. Dozens of queer advocacy groups formed.
But under Xi Jinping, the top leader since 2012, authorities have intensified crackdowns on human rights lawyers, feminist groups and other activists. While Mr Xi has not spoken explicitly about gay rights, he has emphasized the Confucian values of order and obedience, in which citizens conform to traditional gender roles.
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In 2016, China banned TV shows and movies featuring gay characters. In 2020, Shanghai Pride announced an indefinite hiatus, citing security concerns.
In 2021, in what activists have described as a watershed moment, WeChat, the most popular app in China, suddenly deleted at least a dozen accounts belonging to university-run LGBTQ organizations.
One of the accounts was operated by Purple, a club of more than 300 members in Tsinghua that included Ms. Huang and Ms. Li. All the articles the members had written – about sex education, coming out to family, mental health – vanished overnight.
Ms. Huang tried to gather her heartbroken friends. “While many things make people feel hopeless, we all need to stay alive and be brave after this night,” she texted them.
Mrs. Huang and Mrs. Li became friends after they arrived at the university from distant worlds. Ms. Li attended foreign language schools in Wuhan, central China. She explored her gender identity in an environment where her classmates felt comfortable standing up and accusing a teacher of politics of discrimination when he said homosexuality is a disease.
Ms. Huang had a less privileged upbringing, raised largely by her grandmother in a small town in northeastern China’s Jilin province. She realized she was a lesbian when she had a crush on a female TV character, but was terrified to reveal this to most of her classmates.
With their parents, Ms. Huang and Ms. Li almost always played the role of model daughters, obeyed and got good grades. But in high school, they also had fierce arguments with their parents over whether they were gay, and have avoided the coming-out conversation with them ever since.
Both women came to Tsinghua because they wanted to be free. Purple became their main social circle, a gateway to a world of new ideas. The club hosted screenings of European films about gay labor activism and organized book clubs discussing queer theory.
The club gave them a sense of purpose. When a Purple member was at risk of contracting HIV, Ms. Huang helped him get tested off-campus. They tiptoed to activism, as if handing flowers to the female staff at the school for International Women’s Day. To express their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, they went out to eat stewed goose – because in Chinese, the word for “goose” sounds like the word for “Russia”.
Then, on May 14 last year, for a pride day in China, they spread 10 rainbow flags on a table in a campus supermarket. “Please take ~ #PROUD,” they scrawled on an accompanying note.
A surveillance camera captured them.
School officials burst into their dormitories that night, the women said. The school later accused them of promoting a “damaging influence,” according to university written decisions to explain the punishment.
The university claimed the women had not asked permission to hand out the flags. It also accused Ms. Huang of using abusive and insulting language against university employees who had spoken to her, and of sharing their names and job titles on WeChat. Ms. Huang acknowledged posting the names but denied using foul language. A Tsinghua representative did not respond to requests for comment.
The punishment deprived them of scholarship money for six months and made it more difficult for them to apply for graduate school in China.
Ms. Li, a history major, now wants to build a new life abroad, hoping to apply for graduate programs abroad.
Ms. Huang, a sociology student, recently drafted a letter to her parents revealing her sexual orientation. When the police knock on her parents’ door, she plans to send them a photo of the letter.
When Ms. Huang arrived in Tsinghua, it was the talk of the town in her hometown, a dream come true for her family. Now she will graduate next month with no job prospects. She had hoped to work at an LGBTQ nonprofit, but knows her options are dwindling.
In February, Ms. Huang and Ms. Li sued the Ministry of Education because the legal system seemed the safest way to protest what happened to them.
After the trial had been in limbo for three months, they visited the courthouse with their lawyer on May 24, only to hear from a judge that the case would not be accepted. According to the women, the judge said there would be no written statement but cited an ordinance prohibiting lawsuits that endanger national security or undermine national unity.
They intend to challenge the decision and exhaust all legal avenues to the end, even though they know the likely outcome.
“Even if the lawsuit cannot give us justice or recognition,” said Ms. Li, “we must record in documents that we existed, worked hard and fought.”
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.