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Xiaogang: an advocate for the Chinese LGBT community

Popularly known as Xiaogang (literally little steel), an endearing term derived from his name, Wei Jiangang is a warm-hearted man whose steely character is all too apparent despite his casual and leisurely style.

Xiaogang is the executive director of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, one of the first Chinese NGOs to focus on issues related to gender, sexuality and sexual health. He is the initiator of the first AIDS Walk in China. He is the founder of the first and only long-running Chinese non-profit LGBT webcast: queercomrades.com. He is also the man behind the very first media award in China that rewards objective media reports on the LGBT community: the China Rainbow Media Awards.

A man with multiple identities

A believer of deconstruction with an in-depth understanding of queer theory, Xiaogang has a rather fluid characterization of himself. “I am, by definition, a man with multiple social identities and gender identities,” he wrote in his self-description on his Weibo account named “Wei Jiangang cannot represent Xiaogang”.

At the office of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Xiaogang explained what he meant by that characterization. “My role changes from time to time. Sometimes I am a director. Sometimes I am a producer. And sometimes I am a lecturer. They are all social identities.”

“I am a male, as is defined by the society. I think that is stifling in the way that the gender confinement will prevent some people from questioning what they can or cannot do as they take for granted what a man’s role is supposed to be,” he continued, “I could also be gay, or rather I am thought to be gay. To me, being gay is more of a political identity, which is only meaningful when put in a certain context. ”

But to many people, Xiaogang is known mostly for his work. As the executive director of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, Xiaogang is the man behind the successful AIDS Walk on the Great Wall, a charity event to raise money and awareness for the HIV/AIDS cause in China, which many people had thought to be impossible to pull off. In November 2013, he received a Vanguard Award at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center as the founder of the China AIDS Walk where he was honored as a groundbreaking leader in the LGBT movement. He is the first Chinese person to receive the award. In December 2013, he was selected to meet with the visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron as one of the representatives of Chinese NGOs.

Xiaogang receiving his Vanguard Award at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center in November, 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Xiaogang

As a director and producer, Xiaogang has directed and produced over two hundred talk shows, documentaries and short films aimed at raising public awareness on social issues related to LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS prevention, which can all be watched on the website queercomrades.com. He is also the main organizer of a documentary camp, the Queer University, which trains people working in sexual minority communities in making documentary films. In 2013, two short documentaries, each about half an hour in length, were produced by trainees who graduated from this camp. "Comrade Yue" (comrade is a Chinese slang for gay), a documentary about a gay miner surnamed Yue was screened in international film festivals and was well-received. "Brothers", a documentary about a trans man named Tony, is the first documentary ever to focus on the female-to-male trans community in China, which is used for education purposes throughout the country and will be screened at Melbourne International Film Festival this year.

As a lecturer, Xiaogang has been working relentlessly on raising awareness of sexual diversity and gender equality among the young people, as well as on eliminating discrimination towards HIV/AIDS. He has been a consultant for UNICEF since 2005. And in 2013, he was hired by UNESCO Beijing office as an expert and inspector of the project “Virtual Classroom: Using new media to measure HIV knowledge among young people.”

Road to civil society

In fact, Xiaogang started out as an actor. He was trained at the drama department of the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Urumqi and then at the Shanghai Drama Academy. He worked as an actor in Beijing and starred in many theatre plays and movies. “I loved the theatre. But the market was not good,” Xiaogang said.

The most prominent movies Xiaogang starred in include “Men and Women” and “The Old Testament”, both LGBT films. He admitted that it was not easy being an actor. “You either have exceptional looks or exceptional people skills to navigate the muddy waters. I don’t think I have any of those, he said. “I realized that was not what I wanted to do.”

Xiaogang poses for a Weibo campaign against HIV/AIDS discrimination on World AIDS Day 2013. Photo: Courtesy of Xiaogang

For a year, Xiaogang tried out a different life as a lecturer in a university. He spent a year in Chongqing where he taught acting. “I had good relationship with my students. But every time I saw them, I could not help but think how they were wasting their time. I kept thinking how they are going to make something of themselves once they graduate. School education simply cannot prepare them for the society.” he explained. “So despite the fact that my teaching job made my mother very happy, I left, as it too, was not something that I wanted to do.”

Xiaogang’s true passion, as it turned out, lies with social work. “In 2000, I was invited by a friend to volunteer at an organization for disabled people. Back then the majority of the Chinese had no idea about volunteering. I thought it was just an opportunity to meet people and have some fun together."

Xiaogang received great satisfaction from the volunteer work. He volunteered for seven consecutive years, joining various organizations along the way. In 2007, he decided to set up an LGBT webcast, called Queer Comrades. “The idea was, since no one is speaking up for this group of people, why can’t we do it ourselves?” Xiaogang said. He faithfully documented the Chinese LGBT community, recording what they are doing and what they think. “At first, I did it mostly for fun,” he admitted. “The real turning point was 2010 when I went to Surabaya (Indonesia) to attend a LGBT conference.”

It was a regional conference of International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA) that was supposed to last three days in April, 2010. Due to the strong objection of the local Muslim extremists, the conference was cut short on the first day. “Trucks full of armed Muslims arrived at the hotel we were staying at lunch time. It was very tense,” he recalled, “As I was a foreigner, I was protected. But they glowered at me and threatened to cut my throat with violent gestures.”

It was this experience that set Xiaogang firmly on the path of becoming a member of the emerging civil society in China as he saw the seriousness of the problems facing the LGBT group. “I asked myself, what have I been doing? The Chinese have largely been politically castrated and seldom participate in political discussions. I felt the incident at Surabaya revived my interest in political talks. After all, many issues concerning the LGBT group cannot be separated from politics.”

Xiaogang made a documentary about the life-turning event at Indonesia, called "Bye Bye Surabaya". Soon after he came back from Indonesia, he went to do an internship at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center with the goal of learning about how to advance the LGBT cause in China. In the US, he participated in the AIDS Lifecycle (from San Francisco to Los Angeles) and carefully studied the workings of the GLAAD Media Award which were both instrumental in his later work of founding the China AIDS Walk and the China Rainbow Media Awards.

At the end of 2010, Xiaogang returned to Beijing and became the executive director of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, where he began to put into practice his ideas. “I wanted to do something different,” he said.

That he certainly did. And he does not intend to stop there. He has bigger plans for the China AIDS Walk which took two years to materialize from an idea into reality. “I hope it can become a nation-wide charity event.” Xiaogang said optimistically. “The Chinese NGOs will grow bigger and more powerful as time goes by. I believe that is the direction it will go.”

The first China AIDS Walk at Jinshanling Great Wall on October 13, 2012. Photo: Courtesy of Xiaogang

When asked whether he is very busy doing what he does, Xiaogang answered in his typical nonchalant manner. “Not too bad,” he smiled. “The word busy does not only apply to doing stuff. It also means busy thinking about what to do next.” He paused and said, “The reason I choose to do NGO work is because it could give one’s creativity plenty of room to grow. That is the most fascinating thing to me.”


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