Hope of a rainbow society spurs activist
Sam Zhao, 27, is a leading lesbian campaigner who aims to foster tolerance towards homosexuality in Chinese society. The part-time editor-in-chief of Les Plus, the only lesbian magazine on the mainland, Zhao was a key organiser of the mainland's first lesbian drama and helped organise a gay-wedding photo shoot at Qianmen in Beijing.
How did you get into publishing Les Plus?
When I graduated from studying Chinese at university in 2005, the whole atmosphere of being a lesbian was one of depression and pessimism. I wanted to escape it and meet more like-minded people. As I had worked for the university newspaper, I knew how a publication is run. Da Tou, who was in charge of design, and I co-founded the first issue with only 16 pages. Now we have published 21 issues, and the total circulation is about 43,000 copies in 40 to 50 cities.
We distribute the magazines through a few bookstores and agents. All of the magazine's editors and contributors have full-time jobs and are volunteering their time. I work full time at another magazine, as well.
Why did Les Plus disappear for 10 months?
The magazine was a free gift for buying a badge for 12 yuan. But the price was printed on the magazine back cover when it didn't have an ISSN [International Standard Serial] number required for selling magazines.
This time we are trying a more low-key approach, which means we have removed the price from the back cover.
What other lesbian events do you do?
We put on a lesbian drama, Happy and Sad Pagoda, in Beijing last year. The drama comprised a number of short stories that represent the reality homosexuals face, including their inner struggles and confusion, and the attitudes of family members towards homosexuals.
I was under a lot of pressure because we had invested 40,000 yuan (HK$45,500) in the play. The money was intended for the printing of the next magazine.
The play turned out so successful: the tickets all sold out. We ended up with a small loss of a couple of thousand yuan. If it had been performed more times, it would have broken even or might even have been profitable. Usually a play runs for about 20 nights.
Do you think that Chinese people have become more accepting of homosexuals?
Compared with 2005, many more people have heard of homosexuality. I cannot say society is more accepting of lesbians and gays. They simply acknowledge the existence of a different type of people and most of them no longer say curse words to our faces. People who accept others being homosexual still freak out if their own relatives are. And attitudes among the older generation are changing very slowly. When we organised a lesbian and gay wedding photo shoot at Qianmen, some middle-aged passers-by came to us and said: 'What you are doing is wrong. Only birds do that.'
Where does the biggest pressure of being a lesbian come from: society or family?
It's not a good idea to separate homosexuals from society. What we need is communication and understanding. The biggest pressure comes no doubt from parents. Many homosexuals have come out in front of everyone but their parents. Chinese people are famous for the filial respect paid to their parents. Children don't want to break their parents' hearts. They don't know how their parents will react to it. That's why some lesbian couples choose to form fake families with gay couples. It's estimated last year that the mainland had about 300 fake couples. I haven't told my parents yet, though everyone else knows it because of the magazine I am running. I once told my mum that I think the most important thing for a woman is not to get married but to have a true, happy and independent life. I know she knows what that meant.
What's the best way to influence people's mindset?
There are basically three ways: the internet, public events and our own behaviour. Open public events are sensational and could create a visual shock and catch people's eyes in the short term. The way that our lesbians show our true selves could actually influence people around us in a subtler way. The change won't happen overnight. We need a more open-minded society with the coexistence of different opinions.
Have you seen any change in the mentality of homosexuals themselves?
Homosexuals on the mainland are increasingly accepting their identity and recognising it as normal. Through the internet, media and public events, more homosexuals know themselves better than ever and are proud of being gay. Many no longer think they are sick or have physical problems. I actually believe that sexual orientation is like a piece of white paper when people are born. It's formed and influenced by the dominant opinions and values in society.
What plans do you have for other lesbian events?
We are now working on revising the script of the drama, and we plan to monitor media clippings on homosexuality and launch a set of fun media awards in the magazine soon. For instance, we will select the most open-minded and conservative publications along with a sample of their stories as evidence. All this could well keep me busy.