Story by: Andrew Stokols, Photos by: courtesy of Fan Popo
Fan Popo might not look like a typical activist, or a filmmaker, for that matter. He sips calmly on an O.B. beer while standing on stage in flip flops and shorts at Seoul’s Queer Film Festival, taking a photo with audience members who have just seen his documentary “Mama Rainbow,” about familial acceptance of LGBTQ identities in China.
Coming out is rarely easy. Less so in China, where homosexuality was considered a mental disorder as recently as 2001, and was officially illegal until 1997. The laws may have been relaxed, but family and societal stigmas continue to hinder China’s LGBTQ community, much as they still do in Korea, both of which share similar Confucian traditions that often emphasize obedience to the family over all else.
Fan’s film, however, hopes to disprove the often-bleak portrayal of the queer experience in China and show that coming out can sometimes strengthen family ties. The documentary, which has been screened in 15 cities around the world, is a medley of interviews with six LGBTQ youth and their mothers from across China.
“I asked my mom jokingly what she would do if I brought a guy home,” recounts Wugui, a gay college student Fan interviews with his mom in Shanghai. “She said, ‘Oh, that would be great. I wouldn’t have to quarrel with a daughter-in-law and I would have a second son so I won’t have to worry about grandsons.’ And then I decided to tell her right then.”
His mother, sitting next to him in their apartment, replies, “God created these angels, so there must be a purpose for these angels in the world.”
The mostly Korean audience was visibly moved by the scenes of parents talking openly about their children’s homosexuality, especially as some of the same conservative family and social attitudes continue to discourage members of Korea’s LGBTQ community from coming out to their families.
“I dreamed the other day that our country legalized same-sex marriage and I was on the streets waving a rainbow flag,” says Mama Xuan of the coastal city of Fuzhou, who said that her son’s coming out broke down a wall between them, and they could talk about anything. She even became involved in an advocacy group called PFLAG-China, which brings together families of gays and lesbians from across China. All the mothers interviewed in “Mama Rainbow” are part of this organization.
The organizer of the festival in Korea, Kenny Kim, asked Fan what he thought of the recent Seoul queer festival, during which a large crowd of supporters was met by a small but vocal group of Christian protesters who had to be restrained by police.
“It’s interesting,” Fan said. “In China, we can’t have such marches in the street, but then again, homophobic protesters are also banned from public protests.”
He recounted how organizers of Beijing’s queer film festival have had to resort to crafty measures to avoid being disrupted by the police: “One year we had to hold the film screenings on a bus, and other times we had to use codes instead of real addresses to refer to the venues so that authorities wouldn’t find out,” he said.
On a political level, China may be even more repressive of civil society than democratic Korea, where the gay pride parade and film festival don’t face specific legal prohibitions. But on a social level, China’s general lack of religious fundamentalism (nearly half of China’s population describe themselves as atheist) is a marked contrast with the U.S. and Korea, where religious conservatives have often played a vocal role in fomenting negative attitudes toward homosexuality, as evidenced in the recent scene at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival.
Homosexuality has a long recorded history in China, and was so prevalent and common in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that Italian Jesuit missionaries criticized it as evidence of “heathenism.” Ironically, while Europe is seen today as a beacon of gay rights, it was probably the influx of Christian missionaries and the influence of European countries that first led the Qing government to begin looking at homosexuality as a social ill. The trend continued into the early decades of Communist rule, during which Mao labeled homosexuality as a decadent import of bourgeois capitalism.
Whatever their origin, social and family stigmas against homosexuality remain entrenched in China, according to Fan. It was initially quite hard for him to find parents willing to go on camera to talk about their children’s homosexuality.
“Many of the parents said at first that we could only show the film at small venues or outside of China,” Fan says. “But after the filming process, they all changed their minds and agreed we could show it anywhere. I saw huge progress even in the course of making the film.”
Some in the audience at the Sungmisan Community Theater in Mangwon-dong, western Seoul, hoped Fan could make a Korean version of the film. But Fan said that first he would have to learn Korean, which he hears is quite difficult. He did say he saw a growing LGBTQ community in Seoul and it gives him hope. He recounted walking through Itaewon and Jongno in Seoul and seeing many gay bars, while in Beijing there were only a few.
Fan, who graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 2007, now spends a good part of his time traveling the world screening his films at various queer film screenings, pride festivals and other events from San Francisco to Stockholm, Mumbai and Jakarta. He is, as his easygoing demeanor might suggest, not someone who likes to fit rigidly into any one genre or identity group.
“When I am among filmmakers, I say that I am a queer activist,” Fan says, “but when I am among queer activists, I say that I am a filmmaker.”
Fan isn’t limiting himself to queer films alone. He recently completed filming a documentary called “VaChina Monologues,” following a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” by college students in China, and using it as a window to explore feminism, sexuality and gender in the country.
Even with “Mama Rainbow,” Fan says the film has a message not only for parents of LGBTQ identified people, but for all families: “These parents (in the film) always treat their children as friends, but not belongings. This is the basic of family communication, and I think the new family value is not to control each other, but to respect each other’s freedom.”