The Influence of Art on LGBTQ+ Acceptance in China: A Conversation With the Arti5+ Project Leaders
Lead Writer Anna interviews the leaders of the ‘Arti5+’ project, a group aiming to change Chinese perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community. They discuss both the main issues confronting the Chinese queer community and the intended impacts of Arti5+’s work.
“I wanted to create an exhibition using art as a non-confrontational way to talk about the LGBTQ identity”- Vick, project lead
Shanghai, China - A bustling metropolis of over 24 million, and a strong contender for China’s cultural capital. In a busy subway station, a group of high school students are putting up posters. They are discrete and communicate in excited hushed tones as the ebb and flow of commuters continue on by. They are looking out for policemen, afraid of what they will do if they catch them in the act.
This is Arti5+, an ambitious art exhibition involving dance, film, theatre, music and visual art, advertising their week-long events. Their aim is to celebrate the stories of queer Chinese individuals in a country where many health professionals still consider homosexuality to be a disorder necessarily treatable by conversion therapy . The group are aware of the risks they are taking in platforming their community, as one participant confides ‘It’s always kind of daunting to go against the system and it's always kind of daunting to do something that’s not necessarily allowed but if it is not for something like that, there’s no social change.’
In conversation with Vick and Chihling I was able to get a sense of the multifaceted experiences urban Chinese LGBTQ+ individuals can have. China with the world’s largest LGBTQ+ population  still encompasses an environment where individuals struggle for acceptance. Chihling began by telling me about her childhood and how she had ‘always been the tomboyish girl’ but how her parents would constantly remind her that she should ‘dress girly and be more attracted to guys.’ This is not an isolated incident reflected in the statistic that 85% of people in China choose not to express their sexual identity to their close family out of fear of rejection. 
Chihling, herself, acknowledged that being from a Chinese cultural background has really affected her own decisions in coming out saying that she does not ‘personally put a label’ on herself though she wouldn’t say that she’s ‘completely straight.’ Much of this hesitancy, she tells me, stems from her parent’s desire for a grandchild and their attitudes towards surrogacy. Whilst surrogacy is not forbidden in China neither is it expressly permitted, Chihling spoke about how her parents worried whether or not a surrogate child ‘would have good genes.’
Vick, on the other hand, was much more vocal in his sexual identity as ‘a gay man’. Rather the problem that he had encountered with China’s limited discourse about LGBTQ+ matters was that he felt an expectation by his peer group to know about ‘a lot of gender and non-binary expressions within the community’ that he simply didn’t ‘as you aren’t being educated about this stuff.’
During 2017 when the project took place ‘there were a lot of LGBTQ stories getting censored…and being taken down from the public sphere.’
The Arti5+ project, therefore, was a student-led initiative to talk about these issues and to address the stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about the LGBTQ+ community. Each piece in the exhibition was based on a personal story shared to the group via a confidential survey. Vick noted that this was important because the project aimed ‘to show different walks of life and the LGBTQ+ community in the most authentic way possible… instead of looking at people as labels we wanted to look at people as individuals.’ For participants like Chihling, this was a new way of looking at the LGBTQ+ experience, as she had always believed there to be a ‘strict representation’ of the community with only one correct way to present it to the public. She told me that through this project she discovered that ‘there are many ways of doing it’ and has come to realize that it’s alright if her expression of gender identity ‘looks or feels different’ to other people’s.
Whilst the theatre department decided to express themselves through a jovial skit, Chihling’s visual art department decided to express themselves in a more serious manner. Chihling described how sexual assault has been a reoccurring problem within the LGBTQ+ community ‘with people being exploited and looked at as different or void’ and how her department wanted to reflect this harrowing reality through art. The department designed portraits of people with injuries, depicting their sadness and the ‘heavy’ nature of the situation. According to Rainn, an anti-sexual violence organization, whilst every gender identity and sexual orientation can suffer from sexual violence, the LGBTQ+ community may face different or additional challenges in accessing legal, medical, law enforcement or other resources than the rest of the population.  Repression was a reoccurring theme during the interviews as Vick also reflected upon how the project rose up in response to another type of violence levelled at the LGBTQ+ community – symbolic violence. During 2017 when the project took place ‘there were a lot of LGBTQ stories getting censored…and being taken down from the public sphere.’ Indeed in 2017, China’s Netcasting Services Association released a regulation banning any display of ‘abnormal sexual behaviour’ - including homosexuality - in online video and audio content. 
To allow for social change and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, activists need to be able to connect with society and Vick pointed out that art was particularly good at communicating with audiences and therefore a great way to initiate new mindsets. He was particularly passionate about his chosen medium, theatre, and its communicative qualities. He emphatically said that actors ‘have the responsibility of guiding their audience despite there still being a ‘huge degree of interpretation’ involved. Because of this, he understood art as a non-confrontational medium which was really important in changing attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ experience as the audience could begin to see the other side of the story without being told what to think. Vick has high hopes for the future of art and told me he was really excited about hearing that one of the audience members was contemplating replicating a project similar to Arti5+ in Russia. Likewise, Chihling has already immersed herself in a similar endeavour in Abu Dhabi where she now studies. The LGBTQ+ scene faces even more severe discrimination there than in China and Chihling describes how she unofficially meets other students in their common rooms to exchange stories, poems and artwork about the LGBTQ+ experience.
It is clear from talking to both Chihling and Vick that art creates a safe space for them to express their sexuality. More significantly, however, it has provided connections that transcend national borders and ingrained biases. Art is responsible for the start of real, lasting change. As Castells, a leading Spanish sociologist notes, ‘torturing bodies is less effective than shaping minds.’
 2020, Wang et al ‘Mapping out a spectrum of the Chinese public’s discrimination toward the LGBT community: results from a national survey.’
 2016, ‘Being LGBTI in China: A National Survey on Social Attitudes towards Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression’
 2017, Wang, ‘Chinese Regulator Calls Homosexuality ‘Abnormal’ and Bans Gay Content from the Internet’
 2012, Castells, ‘Networks of outrage and hope- social movements in the Internet age.’