Vermonter Hannah Miller Reflects on Co-organizing the First Shanghai Pride in 2009
Written and submitted by Hannah Miller, Shanghai LGBT Co-Founder
Photos by Grant-oh Buchwald
The following reflection shares some memories and lessons learned from co-organizing the first annual Shanghai Pride in 2009. I am using my own memories of the event to construct the reflection, so a lot of this centers around my perspective on what happened. More has been published about the event, which just finished its 12th annual celebration. I have left out a lot of pieces of the story, and have tried to focus on the events that are most vivid in my memories. I link to articles and further reading in the text for those who are interested.
Shanghai Pride (2009) came about from a combination of two things: (1) genuine desire to empower our community and extend tolerance towards the LGBTQ family in China, and (2) pure naïve optimism. In this self-reflection I begin with a discussion of where our desire to empower our community grew. This desire stemmed from years of work growing our Shanghai queer network, through weekly and monthly events as part of our ShanghaiLGBT organization. After starting with sporadic events, and then building regular monthly and annual events, ShanghaiLGBT (which was founded in 2006 by Charlene Liu, Dylan Chen, Tiffany Lemay, and myself) started to build a solid (yet hidden) network of queers in Shanghai, a city of about 24 million people.
Some media sources will say that Shanghai Pride 2009 was “China’s first gay pride festival,” but that isn’t true. It was just the first one that received attention from the China government and national and international press. The festival received coverage from the China Daily, the BBC, New York Times, NPR, The Economist, Newsweek, Le Monde, Salon, and many more. There were many other, smaller, invisible pride events that no one has ever heard of. One of those took place in 2008, when ShanghaiLGBT hosted a “mini” gay pride event at a venue called Pink Home. Pink Home was the home base for our monthly gatherings in our early years, and it had become a reliable gathering locale in the visible Shanghai LGBTQ community (i.e., the part of our community that felt comfortable congregating in public venues). This is where we gathered for our first pride celebration. Although not covered by the press and highly invisible to the average Shanghai resident, that first pride weekend was invigorating. We started to feel like we’d amassed a large enough community to start making a discernable impact. During that weekend, we hosted a series of events, including the crowning of the first official king and queen of ShanghaiLGBT (Michael Darragh and Chris Wu), a lot of dancing, and a few focused conversations. In hallways and in groups, we started to talk about larger possibilities for pride events.
The most memorable event from that weekend came out of one of these focused conversations during which we asked local ShanghaiLGBT regulars to share feedback on the possibilities of future pride events. We sat in a room in a large circle, with drinks and boas, early one afternoon. The folx who showed up that day were our “core” folx. These were our people. They showed up that Sunday, after a long night of dancing and celebrating, to discuss the future of our group. This is also where the pure naïve optimism came into the story. As an expat and as an American, I was excited about the possibility of up-scaling our events and making them more visible. Other expats agreed; they’d seen successful festivals in their countries: why not do it here? They shared stories of how empowering these festivals were to them, and I like to think that they shared these stories because they wanted the Shanghai community to have a taste of the same empowerment.
Feedback from Chinese (local) members made me rethink my interest and excitement in a larger, more public event. Their voices helped situate my desires in a more current geographical, cultural, and temporal context. Chris (the recently crowned King of ShanghaiLGBT) aptly pointed out that were there to be a more visible pride event, the Chinese participants would be most vulnerable to negative consequences, as they would not be protected by the foreign passports and the ability to leave the country if the larger event was not received well by the local or national authorities. Other voices chimed in, which confirmed my understanding that our Chinese participants would be most subject to damaging ramifications. During that conversation in 2008, our core folx also suggested that one way to make a larger event possible would be to organize a festival without a parade and void of a public political agenda. Additionally, they suggested that to protect our local members from harm, we should make foreigners the public “face” of the event and limit public communications to English. We discussed the limits of this model: it might appear like a fluffy colonialist event.
Over the next few months, the ShanghaiLGBT leaders (Charlene Liu, Dylan Chen, Tiffany LeMay, and myself) talked about future possibilities, with these sensitive considerations in mind. Something to note is that we were volunteers who were working well beyond our skill set. We did not have experience organizing large social and political events. Although our membership at that time was around 3,000, the largest events we organized were for our regular members, a few hundred people, and they were never overtly political. Sometime around Spring of 2009, we became fascinated with the idea of doing more, and our naïve optimism was put into action.
I wanted to act, and my ShanghaiLGBT organizers were also interested in putting this kernel of an idea into action. However, we did not move forward without consideration of these real concerns from our organizers and members. We consulted with a local lawyer (well-known in the community for familiarity with Chinese LGBTQ laws and policies) who suggested that we intentionally market the event as a social celebration that was led by foreigners. He suggested that we foreground the “foreigner” element of the festival, and background any political or social characteristics of the festival. We took his advice to heart, and intentionally designed the festival with this in mind. In doing this, we aimed to protect our local participants and organizers, and to keep a low profile in the eyes of government and law enforcement. We went forward cautiously, but with fashioned intent.
Our Guiding Principles
These early consultations are what constructed the base framework of our festival. We made early decisions about guiding goals and principles that would help us make decisions going forward. We wanted to:
- Construct a narrative of positive celebration of the diversity of the Chinese LGBTQ family (not a narrative of fear)
- Protect our Chinese organizers, volunteers, and participants by making the public “face” of the event appear to be centered around foreigners and the English language;
- Avoid antagonizing the government.
- Not get shut down.
- Not go to jail.
We succeeded at 1, 2, and 5. Although in reflection this is easy to discuss casually, we were well aware of the potential consequences should this event go awry. We knew that jail was an option for all of us, and we tried to make decisions that would use the privilege we had to shield those with less privilege (e.g., local Chinese organizers and volunteers) from those consequences. What is notably absent from this list is awareness that we were planning this festival during the 20th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square Massacre, and that law enforcement was on heightened lookout for any gatherings or public demonstrations. Another thing we didn’t consider was that WE HAD NO IDEA WHAT WE WERE DOING. We were young, determined, fueled by naïve optimism, and ready to dedicate our lives to what we thought was a step forward in the narrative of the Chinese LGBTQ community. We were also terrified.
What followed, after this decision to go forward, was a whirlwind of adrenaline, celebration, fear, and excitement that resulted in what is now sometimes called the first successful gay pride festival in the country of China. It happened very fast and we hardly had time to think about what we were doing. This event and my participation in it has changed the way I think about community, activism, resistance, exhaustion, celebration, censorship, media, rights to assembly, free speech, and the queer community. The story of Shanghai Pride is complicated and exciting. Below, I elaborate on why this was an exciting event in queer history.
WHAT THE HELL ARE WE DOING?!
First, the four of us had NO BUSINESS leading an event on of this size and scale, both literally and metaphorically. We were making decisions every hour that we were unprepared to make. Prior to Shanghai Pride 2009, our main business was throwing low-profile parties for a few hundred friends on a Saturday or Thursday night. During these routine events we intentionally avoided attention from national and international press for obvious reasons: it helped our members participate without fear of exposure. I do not mean to say that we were entirely invisible. For example, in the year leading up to I wrote a monthly column for a local English language magazine about queer nightlife in the city, which gave our events some exposure in local English-language media. My co-organizers were similarly inexperienced managing and organizing large events. None of us had experience negotiating a narrative on the international media landscape.
Second, we didn’t know how to organize people. We had dozens of volunteers showing up at planning events, and we had no clue how to organize them. We made rushed decisions without data or experts to guide us. We made decisions with no money to fund our plans. All four organizers continued to work full-time jobs and volunteer on nights and weekends to sustain and cultivate the chaos we’d begun. Despite this lack of experience, we found ourselves at the heart of an international event that, in retrospect, was the start of something awesome. At the time, we didn’t know it would be successful, and we were terrified. We were unprepared. We were broke and tired. But we were excited, and we pushed ahead.
WE ARE GOING TO JAIL
The third reason the 2009 festival was memorable is because of the national and international attention it received. Although for outsiders it may seem that being covered in the international press was a win, this was not a win in our eyes. When the BBC broke the first story about our festival (online and on air), we listened with trepidation and fear of our unknown future. I was quoted saying that in planning the festival we intentionally tried to avoid political disruption, yet it was clear from the story that political disruption was a real outcome of the event. We thought: what would happen? Would organizers get in trouble? Would our festival be embraced by China? Would organizers be put in jail? Would our Chinese organizers and volunteers be put in jail? The range of unknown outcomes was clear and present. Despite the unknowns, we went forward. There was an energy and excitement in what we were doing. Even though we were scared, it felt important. And, we had already started, so we wanted to finish. We watched and continued in fear and elation as the festival began to gain attention in the international media, thanks largely in part to the first BBC story and the attention it received.
The fourth reason the first Shanghai PRIDE is memorable and notable is because the festival was shut down by the government. In retrospect, we realized that although shutting down the festival was emotionally crippling at the time, it helped the festival become more successful than it ever would have been had the government not taken away our permits and intimidated our vendors. In their eagerness to stamp out our action, they made us stronger. Our first few events took place without issue. We noted the unexpected presence of the international press in our earliest events, but could not predict what this meant for the fate of the festival. Our kick-off event film screening at a venue called Vargas Grill. Our festival had been mentioned on the BBC world service that afternoon, and we had been featured on the Wikipedia homepage as a notable event in the world. This was exciting. We felt like we were making history.
An example of a brochure we used to overview of the week’s events: Notice that everything except the addresses and names of venues was in English, which was intentional.
On day 2 of the festival, we held a panel discussion in a grand ballroom in a downtown hotel. As the “public face” of the festival, we’d decided that it was safer for me to introduce events and welcome the press, as my white and American privilege would hopefully shield me from severe consequences. The night of the panel discussion, I walked across the stage to see an anxious press corps lined up in the front row. The vibe was different. The mood was somber. The people were nervous. I could feel it.
The evening before? The movie? That was fun. That moment on stage at the panel discussion? That was terrifying. I was not prepared to handle the emotional weight of the potential consequences of our event. I introduced the festival, introduced myself as a lead organizer, greeted the press, introduced our panel, and stepped aside. As the panel discussion unfolded, we soon realized that our panelists were headed down political paths we had not intended in our planning. This shift contributed to the heightened tension in the evening. One panelist, a local professor, shared statistics about police and government censorship of free speech and civil rights for the LGBTQ community. We looked around the room and noticed that plain clothes the national police were filing into our event and were video recording the event and participants in the room.
As I stood at the side of the grand ballroom away from the panel, person after person approached me and whispered into my ear: “Hannah: the China police are here. Hannah: the China police are here.” I heard them, but I didn’t know how to respond. I envisioned the worst-case scenario in my head. We had talked as a group about what to do in these situations based on our first guiding principle: we wanted to craft a narrative of a celebration and joy, not fear and doubt. I recalled this principle. I ignored my fear and smiled as if there were no problems in the room, despite my growing anxiety and the growing tension in the crowd.
During these very intense moments, I looked to ways to console myself. After all, we’d done our due diligence and sought legal counsel. We’d followed our lawyer’s advice to keep the festival politically neutral and socially positive. We’d marketed the festival as a party that aimed to bring China’s diverse family together in celebration. We’d designated a foreigner as the public face of the festival. We had not organized a parade. We’d used English. Despite these reassurances, I felt things were going wrong. I left the room in an internal panic and sought refuge in the bathroom. Although it was not rational, the fear and unknowns in that situation induced an episode of mild insanity and paranoia in my head. As I entered the bathroom, I was convinced there was someone waiting in the stall who wanted to either harm me or take me to jail. I swung opened the bathroom door: no one. I slammed open the stall door: no one. I now realize that was an irrational fear, but at that moment, I was scared. The intimidation worked.
Lying to the Press
I returned to the ballroom. The panel discussion had ended, and the ballroom which was now abuzz with talk, press, federal police, local police, and participants. I had a few conversations with press representatives, which are now entirely fuzzy in my memory due to the fear and elation that I was not in jail. I vaguely remember the NPR correspondent asking me “Aren’t you scared?” and replying with a lie: “No! Why would I be scared?” and feigning ignorance of the gravity of the situation. I stuck to our first guiding principle to build a positive narrative of our story in the media: We are not doing anything that should scare anyone. We are celebrating the diversity of the Chinese family. We are doing something good, not something bad. I was scared, but I maintained the story we wanted to tell, and fought against the media reframing our festival as one of divisiveness and malice. We all went home that night to little sleep.
Getting Shut Down
On Day 4, we showed up at the event venue for a film screening to learn that we had been shut down. Although not officially announced, our vendors were harassed by police, our venues were forcibly closed, and organizers were being followed and monitored. Everyone was intimidated. The methods of intimidation were simple: these vendors and venues were operating no differently than they had in the past, but suddenly law enforcement was demanding permits, documentation, and paperwork that was technically within their right to demand, but was not part of common practice. They were also demanding IDs and passport numbers of the organizers. We learned that this was a familiar tactic. Our vendors and hosts were clearly intimidated at the threat to close their businesses if they did not comply.
In light of this news, the four core organizers had a few hours to sit and reflect in the empty venue about next steps. I recall tense conversations, anger, long moments of silence, crying, and phone calls with the press on a smoggy balcony overlooking the city.
After we’d communicated with the press, the core organizers walked together to a restaurant in a local mall. The plain clothes police were a norm in our lives at this point, and they followed us to the next location. We took a circuitous route to the restaurant in hopes of losing them, and then sat around and pretended to eat dessert. Despite the feeling of defeat, we had something to celebrate that day. That morning, the China Daily, which is a national English-Language newspaper, posted a story on the front page that our little festival was “sending a strong signal to the 1.3 billion Chinese people about greater acceptance and tolerance.” This was a victory! We held that victory and our defeat at the same time. Mostly, we had questions. We wondered why we would be endorsed by the national media that morning, and then shut down that evening. We were scared and confused.
We were confused because we got messages that evening that we should both stop immediately, but that the work we were doing was making a difference. This made us step back and ask which parts of this message were for the public and which were for us. If we kept going, which had been our plan all along, what would be the consequences? Why would we risk the lives and freedom of our Chinese organizers and participants to stand on our principles? Why not surrender and give up, declaring the China Daily article a victory? Instead of stopping, we decided as a group to keep going. I say “as a group,” because we wanted to hear from our Chinese organizer (Dylan) that this is what he wanted. We decided to focus the “face” of the festival on me, and to give my contact information and passport number to the authorities who were asking about who was in charge, so that the vendors could demonstrate compliance without threatening their own businesses.
With this decision under our belts, we continued to organize. We found hidden spaces to communicate and make more plans. We were advised by more than one press correspondent that our communication was all being monitored, and that I was likely going to be arrested. Days went by when I was walking through the world waiting to go to jail. I’d been advised by our most trusted press correspondents to delete contacts from my phone as to not implicate my co-organizers when I was arrested, which made communication more difficult. I warned my principal (I was an elementary school teacher at the time) that I might be arrested at school.
That was by far the strangest conversation I’ve ever had with a supervisor at work.
Despite the fear and intimidation, we kept going. I am not sure where this came from. In retrospect, I would like to say that it was a genuine desire to do something meaningful in the world. At the time, we felt driven by inertia, momentum, naïve optimism, adrenaline, stubbornness, and our core guiding principles. We moved our events to new venues, we formed secret means of communicating with our members, and a few dozen brave souls showed up at our subsequent event the next night, and then our participation started to grow again. Once people realized we were not arrested, attendance started to increase. We tiredly and doggedly went forward. We hosted a drag show, a fashion show, an auction, and a gay marriage ceremony. And in the end, we held all of these events and finished what is now sometimes called the country of China’s first ever successful pride festival. We are all proud of this story, and I hope that this kernel of a story will blossom into a sustained and nourishing event for years to come.
What I hope it can become
The last best thing that ever happened to this festival, was that after it was over most of the core organizers left the country. The festival and its fate was left in the able hands of a very talented Charlene Liu. She was one of the co-founders of Shanghai LGBT, and a co-organizer of the 1st annual Shanghai Pride in 2009. She was willing to stay and continue. That first year in 2009, we had no idea what we were doing, and we were collectively too scared to continue together into an unknown future. We were overwhelmed and exhausted. We were happy to not be in jail. I had already committed to returning to the US for graduate school, and our other organizers had made similar plans to move away from China. However, when I left I knew we’d started something that was important. Although I would not be a leader going forward, I knew there was potential for a future. I remember a conversation with Charlene sometime in the days after the festival when I said: “We have created a precious baby! We can’t let it die!”
Charlene, who stayed and plowed through the uncertainty, has worked in the past ten years to transform the rag-tag ball of chaos, joy, uncertainty, and terror that was Shanghai Pride 2009 into a full-force cultural celebration and international event. She has worked to carry out the original principles that guided us through those scary days in the first year and turned those principles into a meaningful source of community pride and celebration. I would like to take this moment (to whoever is reading) to thank Charlene for this hard work and success.
When I think about the guiding principles of that first year, I remember the first one: construct a narrative of positive celebration of the diversity of the Chinese LGBTQ family. That first year, we successfully achieved that first principle. Through Charlene’s leadership, and the support of the community, Shanghai Pride is on its way to being accessible for anyone who wants to participate without fear. It is about PRIDE.
Because June is about pride and visibility, I want to take a moment to talk about what I am proud about. I am proud of Charlene and what this festival has become. I am proud of the Chinese members of Shanghai LGBT who came to the events despite their fear of local law enforcement and rejection from their families. I am proud of the business owners who fought to keep their venues open in those early years to give the queer community a space to begin to organize. I am proud of the media who helped tell our story. I am proud of the Chinese government and media for eventually embracing the joy that pride celebrations can bring to a city and community. I am proud of the silent members of the Chinese LGBTQ community who worked underground for decades and centuries to move the country towards love and acceptance for LGBTQ people, which made our festival possible.
We still have a lot of work to do. I’m fortunate to have been a small part of this story, and I look forward to seeing what Shanghai and China pride will become in the future. This opportunity to reflect on the event has made me think about what I have learned. First, movements take time and persistence. Second, we should all take our rights to assemble, organize, vote, and speak freely seriously. It is how we will change our country. Third, if you are working on making social change in a community, listen to everyone, and take in the criticism along with the celebrations. The critiques we received in the press (that it was just a celebration for foreigners and had no political weight) made us question our decisions, our actions, and the goals of the festival. Ultimately it helped us think more carefully about what goals we were working for. Finally, people with privilege in any social movement must be willing to give up some of that privilege to make space for those who have been historically deprived of opportunities. People with privilege must also be willing to listen, and to use their privilege to amplify voices of those who have been silenced, and to fight for rights of people who are oppressed. Social justice is everyone’s responsibility, and it should not be placed on the backs of those who are oppressed.
Reunion at World Pride: NYC 2019
I haven’t returned to China since 2009. I’ve missed my friends, the queer community, and the city. Fortunately, a lot of the queer community came to New York for World Pride to march in the parade to represent China. As we marched and talked, we had time to reflect on the first year, and I got to hear stories about the annual events that followed. It took hard work to keep that baby alive, and I am thankful to everyone who did.