Karolyn Li still remembers reading a brochure from the prestigious Tsinghua University in China when she was in high school preparing to apply to college. It highlighted a graduate who co-founded an LGBTQ rights group, a suggestion of on-campus inclusivity that shocked Ms. Li, who identified as queer.
Ms. Li finally enrolled in Tsinghua. Now a 21 year old junior, Ms. Li saw the brochure very ironic. He and his friend, Christine Huang, a 23-year-old senior, have spent the past year locked in a losing battle against universities and state education authorities over gay and transgender expression.
When the two women handed out rainbow flags on campus last year, and fought the school administrator who confronted them, the university issued a sentence that will remain in their permanent record. When they tried in March to lay flowers outside the dormitory of a transgender classmate who died by suicide, they were surrounded by security. When they posed with the rainbow flag in a photo in May, a university employee ran over and said they were not allowed to post the picture online.
“All of these things make me wonder: How did things get so bad?” said Ms. Huang, who identified as a lesbian.
In late May, they were told by a court in Beijing, where Tsinghua is located, that the court would not accept a lawsuit they filed against the state education ministry to overturn the university’s conviction over the flag incident.
Ms experience Huang and Ms. Li points out the shrinking space for even subtle gay and transgender expression in China. As the ruling Communist Party has tightened control over ideology and civil society, nationalist commentators on social media have sought to paint Chinese LGBTQ activist groups in particular as tools of hostile foreign powers.
Among the main accusations made against the groups was that they “caused conflict in society with the aim of destabilizing society,” said Darius Longarino, a senior research fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.
In May, the police in the eastern city of Hangzhou detained six gay men for 13 days to participate in what the report calls “obscene activity”, publicizing their names. That same month, the Beijing LGBT Center, a well-known advocacy group, closed after 15 years of operation, citing forces beyond its control.
The disbandment of the Beijing group crushed Ms. Huang, who has become his monthly donor. He said the center makes people feel safe, citing a friend who went there for low-cost counseling.
Civic groups in China have long crossed the line of official tolerance that is not clear and are constantly shifting, with activists frequently facing arrest. Ms. Huang and Ms. Li was born in the early 2000s, a period when the authorities slightly loosened social controls. Homosexuality has been removed from China’s list of mental illnesses. Organizations like Shanghai Pride can host large public celebrations. Dozens of queer advocacy groups formed.
But under Xi Jinping, supreme leader since 2012, authorities have intensified their crackdown on human rights lawyers, feminist groups and other activists. Although Mr Xi has not explicitly spoken out about gay rights, he has emphasized the Confucian values of order and obedience, whereby citizens conform to traditional gender roles.
In 2016, China banned television shows and movies featuring gay characters. In 2020, Shanghai Pride announced an indefinite hiatus, citing safety concerns.
In 2021, as activists described it as a turning point, WeChat, China’s most popular app, suddenly deleted at least a dozen accounts of college-run LGBTQ organizations.
One of the accounts is run by Purple, a club with over 300 members in Tsinghua owned by Ms. Huang and Ms. Li. All the articles its members had written — on sex education, outreach to families, mental health — vanished overnight.
Ms. Huang tries to gather his heartbroken friends. “Even though things make people feel hopeless, we all have to live on, and we have to be brave after tonight,” he told them.
Ms. Huang and Ms. Li becomes friends after arriving at college from a world far away. Ms. Li attended a foreign language school in Wuhan in central China. He explored his gender identity in an environment where classmates felt comfortable standing and accused a politics teacher of discrimination when he said homosexuality was a disease.
Huang had a disadvantaged education, largely being raised by his grandmother in a small town in China’s northeastern Jilin Province. She realized she was a lesbian when she had a crush on a female TV character, but she was afraid to reveal it to most of her classmates.
With their parents, Ms. Huang and Ms. Li almost always plays the model daughter, obeys them and gets good grades. But in high school, they also had a heated argument with their parents about whether they were gay, and have since avoided open conversation with them.
The two women came to Tsinghua wanting to be free. Purple becomes their core social circle, a gateway to a world of new ideas. The club hosts screenings of European films about gay labor activism and organizes a book club devoted to queer theory.
The club gives them a goal. When a member of Ungu is at risk of contracting HIV, Ms. Huang helped him take the test off campus. They tiptoe into activism, such as giving flowers to female school employees for International Women’s Day. To express their opposition to the Ukrainian invasion, they went to eat boiled goose – because in Chinese, the word for “goose” sounds like the word for “Russia”.
Then, last year on May 14, before pride day in China, they unfurled 10 rainbow flags over a table inside a supermarket on campus. “Please take ~ #PRIDE,” they wrote on the accompanying note.
A surveillance camera caught them.
School officials broke into their dorm that night, the women said. The school later accused them of promoting “harmful influence”, according to a university written decision explain punishment.
The university confirmed that the women did not seek permission to distribute the flags. It also accused Huang of using abusive and insulting language towards university employees who confronted him, and of sharing their names and titles on WeChat. Ms. Huang acknowledged posting the names, but denied using offensive language. Representatives for Tsinghua did not respond to requests for comment.
The sentence barred them from receiving scholarship money for six months and made it more difficult for them to apply to graduate schools in China.
Ms. Li, a history major, now looking to build a new life abroad, hopes to apply to graduate programs abroad.
Ms. Huang, a sociology major, recently wrote a letter to his parents disclosing his sexual orientation. If the police knocked on his parents’ door, he planned to send them a photo of the letter.
When Ms. Huang walked into Tsinghua, it became the talk of his hometown, a dream come true for his family. Now, he’s graduating next month with no job prospects. She had hoped to work for an LGBTQ nonprofit, but knew her options were running low.
In February, Ms. Huang and Ms. Li sued the education ministry because the legal system seemed the safest way to protest what happened to them.
After the lawsuit had been hanging for three months, they visited the courthouse on May 24 with their lawyers, only to hear from a judge that the case would not be accepted. According to the woman, the judge said there would be no written explanation, but cited regulations that prohibit lawsuits that endanger national security or undermine national unity.
They plan to oppose the decision and go all legal avenues to the end, even though they know the likely outcome.
“Even if a lawsuit can’t bring us justice or recognition,” said Ms. Li, “we have to record in the document that we exist, work hard, and struggle.”
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.