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Yi Yang: Judicial Activist, Program Officer – LGBT Rights Advocacy, China

Yi Yang is a co-founder and program officer for LGBT Rights Advocacy, an organization that fights for LGBTIQ+ rights through impact litigation supported by a large group of LGBTIQ+ lawyers. In our interview, Yi shares how LGBT Rights Advocacy operates, some unique legal cases that the organization has supported, and what it is like to be queer in China.

By Zong Zhang

What is it like to be LGBTIQ+ in China?

Reflecting on the LGBTIQ+ situation in China, Yi outlined his personal experiences as a gay man, and the obstacles faced by people he has helped. 

“On one hand, in China, we have very good social foundations due to the impact of Buddhism and Confucianism. We usually have a “none of my business” approach when it comes to others.”

Yi reflects that open discrimination and hate crimes are rarer in China than in other developed countries, such as the United States. However, unlike the United States, China lacks in giving LGBTIQ+ citizens legal protection. Queer people living in China have no guarantee of any human rights. Thus, when transgressions do occur, there is no protection for the victims. 

One very notable issue is same-sex marriage, which is illegal in China. In Chinese culture, nothing is more important than the familial unit. Family ties are incredibly important, and marriage is a milestone for one’s social status. Thus, fighting for same-sex marriage is one of LGBT Rights Advocacy’s main goals. 

Yi also laments how most citizens are not educated or accepting when it comes to LGBTIQ+ issues. “In the end, like in most countries, being gay is viewed as something to be corrected.”

What inspires you to pursue this line of work?

Yi began his activism in college, where he joined an environmental NGO. At the time, his job was collecting pollution data from rivers and the air. He reflects that “Climate change was the ‘hot’ topic of the time.”

“I’m a gay man. But that is not my reason for activism. Though my worldview was initially limited to myself, I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve helped. The more suffering I witnessed, the more pain and anxiety I felt, and more my motivation grew. The deeper you go, the more people you will see in need, and it will make you more dedicated.”

Later on, in 2016, he co-founded LGBT Rights Advocacy with his boyfriend. Yi says his motivation grows day by day as he witnesses more and more social injustice. 

What does LGBT Rights Advocacy do?

LGBT Rights Advocacy operates on a popular Chinese communication platform called WeChat. It is an omnipresent platform that nearly every Chinese citizen has, and LGBT Rights Advocacy is composed of several groups within WeChat. 

The main goal of the organization is to make change through impact litigation. Making changes directly to the law is difficult in China’s soft-authoritarian state of government. However, like in the US, social change by setting legal precedents is possible. LGBT Rights Advocacy has a large network of LGBTIQ+ lawyers that tackle cases related to LGBTIQ+ discrimination. Every day, victims come to the organization seeking legal help and advice, and LGBT Rights Advocacy is there to help. So far, there have been 12 high-profile cases that the organization has undertaken. 6 of them were won, 4 were lost, and 2 are ongoing. 

LGBT Rights Advocacy also serves as a support system for those in need. There are many support groups where LGBTIQ+ members can confide in their struggles with each other, and there is an urgent hotline where people can call for help in emergencies. 

“Sometimes we experience emergencies. For example, a trans woman might be abused and locked in the house by her family. We ask them questions. ‘Where are you?’ ‘What’s the situation like?’ We usually dispatch a team of lawyers and volunteers. If it’s bad, like them being locked up, we call the cops. Oftentimes, the family will listen to the lawyers, because of lawyers having a high social standing in China. We talk to the families and victims directly and give them counseling.” 

What are some noteworthy cases of LGBT Rights Advocacy’s impact litigation?

In 2014, before LGBT Rights Advocacy was officially founded, Yi and his boyfriend were already seeking change. The couple already had a small WeChat community, and many members came to them grieving about gay conversion therapy. Many hospitals advertised conversion therapy as a way to “fix” flawed children. Yi’s boyfriend decided to undergo this therapy in the name of justice. 

Yi’s boyfriend checked himself into a clinic, and was electro-shocked, fed nausea pills, given strange injections, and degraded for his “sexual perversions.” After the harrowing experience, the Chongqing clinic was sued in a landmark case that went viral. Gay conversion therapy became outlawed by a Chinese Supreme Court, and clinics were banned from openly advertising these treatments (though many tacitly still provided the service). 

In another court case, Yi helped a college student sue a medical textbook publishing textbook company. The medical textbook openly stated that “homosexuality was a mental disease”. However, in the end, the case was lost.  

“This case was tough. There are no laws banning discrimination against homosexuality. So, in the end, we had a very flimsy platform arguing that the quality of the textbook was not up to standard due to misleading information. We did our best, but the lack of laws still makes things hard.”

Currently, LGBT Rights Advocacy is working on a case over child custody for a split lesbian couple. Yi hopes that he can get the court to indirectly acknowledge the validity of the lesbian couple’s familial relationship, which would be another small step towards arguing for same-sex marriage. Yi hopes this case will go viral. 

“People don’t care much about human rights. But people empathize with loved ones. It’s a good strategy for change.”

How can readers help LGBT Rights Advocacy?

“It’s hard. Recently, China made laws to prevent NGOs from accepting foreign donations. Thus, it’s difficult for us to accept donations from readers.” 

Yi expressed that the new laws make it harder for LGBT Rights Advocacy to operate during tough financial periods. Still, he plans to continue his fight for justice in the foreseeable future.

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