Beijing Queer Chorus: We use singing to make a gentle difference
 In July 2016, Beijing Queer Chorus (BQC) becomes the first Asian LGBT choir to take stage at Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) festival. Photos: in courtesy of BQC

“Many of us joined the choir because of our association with “labels” (of identity), which are lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBT). We’re all burdened by the labels and sometimes face unfair treatment by other people,” Liu Xiao, a tenor with the Beijing Queer Chorus told Vice, a media platform on youth subcultures.

Beijing Queer Chorus (BQC) was formed in 2008. It is the first gay and lesbian choir in China to put on public performances, and also the first ever Asian choir appearing on the stage of Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) festival, known to be the world’s largest LGBT performing arts event.

 In April, 2018, the BQC choir rehearses at the  the Beijing office of Ogilvy & Mather. 
 
Sino-US.com visited the Beijing office of Ogilvy & Mather, a global advertising company, on a Saturday afternoon, where BQC would get together for rehearsal every weekend. “One of our singers is an employee of the company and when they found out we’re looking for a venue, they offered their workplace for free to show support,” Dan Qing, a choir member who is now in charge of the team’s PR, told Sino-US.com.

Many people showed up for the weekly rehearsal, filling a full floor of the office. In a quite spacious stage room, dozens of singers sat in circles with the choir conductor sitting in the center leading their symphony while accompanying them on a keyboard. There were some curious visitors sitting against the wall. They may have accidentally walked in and were apparently enticed by the soothing harmonic music.

Use singing to make a difference softly

“The labels attached to us also have some positive effect. Being a gay choir, we actually get more performance opportunities. We expect to optimize our vocal skills and become more professional. This is the trait we’ve worked hard to acquire,” Liu Xiao told Vice in a video interview.

Now, with 10 years’ development, BQC has gained recognition for both its professional performance and advocacy activities. “We’re kind of a start-up business, going through growing pains before we find the right path and a more clearly defined goal - to advocate for China’s LGBT community,” said Dan.  In 2016, the choir was sponsored by the GALA Choruses, an international association of LGBT choruses founded in 1982, to perform in its quadrennial festival in Denver. According to Dan, the trip became a landmark event for the team of just about 20 members back then.
 
In May 2017, Beijing Queer Chorus members join an advocacy campaign on the International Day Against Homophobia. Back then, they had around 40 members and now there are over 100 members in the choir. 
 
“The festival attracted an audience of over 7,000 people. We were stunned to see LGBT choirs could be so popular. They are like super stars, idols. We’re impressed by the confident individuals, their (LGBT) community culture, and how they get along with friends and families,” she said.

The Denver tour worked as a catalyst for BQC's development. In two years, the team expanded from around 20 to over 100. “And we have a clearer goal which is to use music to advocate for China’s LGBT community. Our members are those who have a passion for music, and we share the belief that love and tenderness delivered by music could make things change,” Dan told Sino-US.com.

Neglect, a bigger problem than discrimination

After attending college abroad, Sam came back to China to engage in mainly public welfare projects. With several years’ volunteering experience with an international NGO group to help with community development in rural China, he has decided to make programs for public good a lifelong pursuit. He joined BQC half a year ago. Now with a couple of team members including Dan, he is devoting a large part of his spare time to managing the choir’s affairs besides singing in it.

Sam told Sino-US.com, among the 100-plus BQC members, the ratio of boys and girls is half half, and about 90 percent of the boys and half of the girls identify themselves as LGBT people. Sam called himself a bisexual, while he has a girlfriend who is aware of his sexual orientation.
 
In May 2018, Beijing Queer Chorus created and performed the song No Prejudice to mark for the International Day Against Homophobia. 
 
“Neglect is a bigger problem than discrimination for China’s LGBT community,” Sam told Sino-US.com. His view is shared by Dan, who said although “it may seem that there is no prejudice and everyone is cool about it, beneath the implicit and restrained attitude is a lack of understanding and apathy”. This kind of attitude is common to see especially in the Chinese cyberspace.

“I do not discriminate against gay people, but I think they should try to keep a low-profile, and live their lives quietly so that one day they may be accepted by the mainstream society,” one online post said. “We’re already very tolerant but they always claim they’re being treated differently. So, are they demanding privileges now,” another netizen wrote, “I do not “vote for” them while I also do not “vote against” them”, the netizen said, which is quite a prevalent view.

On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, BQC members videotaped a chorus which gained popularity immediately and was liked and forwarded thousands of times on Weibo, Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The bright melody named ‘No Prejudice’ aims to mock those seemingly neutral but indeed callous remarks.

“Chinese culture, traditions and values may find the ‘problem’ difficult to deal with, so many people in the society tend to evade it,” Sam explained. He emphasized although it’s a good thing that there are few anti-LGBT groups in China that would threaten with hate crimes, frontal assaults more common in Western countries can be thought-provoking and sometimes bring dramatic changes in the society and its legal system.

“Being a developing country, China has more urgent problems to address (than the LGBT issues),” Sam said, noting in the country, LGBT-related contents are kind of ‘censored’. For example, people don’t not see TV programs featuring LGBT community or people, and they also don’t find too much in the Chinese cyberspace.

According to Dan, all these have led to some kind of ‘inertia’. “A lot of things are obscure and inadequate. The rights and interests of LGBT people fail to be respected and protected,” she said. She cited the cases of sexual harassments and domestic violence. “If LGBT people fell victim to crimes, they can do nothing about it.”

A positive role model

Being the longest-running LGBT choir in Beijing, once in a while, BQC would go abroad to give performances and engage in other exchange activities with foreign LGBT communities. However, both Dan and Sam said their top priority now remains serving the local community. “We try hard to nourish the local LGBT community while exerting positive influence on behalf of it,” Sam told Sino-US.com.

“For our members, the choir is an effective platform to interact and communicate with the society. They’re encouraged to express themselves. And our activities intend to embolden them.”
 
In June 2017, Beijing Queer Chorus participates in the Gay Asian Choral Festival in South Korea. 
 
Dan is straight. After she joined BQC, she began to have more opportunities to communicate with LGBT people. “In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, people naturally presume that gay people here no longer have self-recognition problems. But it’s actually not the case,” she said, adding many LGBT individuals she met are under considerable pressure. “They often told me BQC was the first such group they met and all of a sudden, they have so many friends they can be honest with.”

BQC has organized a series of campus activities in Beijing this year. They held seminars in several top universities in the capital, including Tsinghua University, Peking University, Renmin University of China, China University of Political Science and Law, and Beijing Normal University.
 
In July, 2018, the BQC joins hands with the Tsinghua University's Purple Community to hold a campus exchange event. 

“We would keep some of the activities confidential and encourage young college students to come forward to tell their stories. In the process, it occurred to me that even today in big cities like Beijing, young LGBT people in the prime days of their lives don’t dare to be candid with their own families and cannot accept themselves,” Dan said.

She is actually sanguine about the development prospects of BQC. Dan joined the choir two years ago after working for state-run Xinhua News Agency for three years as a reporter. “The broader environment is better now, and the atmosphere here (among BQC members) is quite good. We would make ourselves bigger and more professional.”

Being away & back hometown

In the winter of 2017, right before the Spring Festival when many people working in big cities like Beijing return to their hometowns to reunite with their families, BQC staged the concert Being Away & Back Hometown.

The choir also released on this occasion a 16-minute documentary featuring several video calls between its members based in Beijing and their parents back in their hometowns. “Our member Chen Jing first came up with the idea that we could produce a documentary themed on us and our parents. Everyone liked it at first, but when they were asked to make the calls, they got hesitant,” Liu Xiao wrote in an article about the micro-documentary he directed and produced.

“When we talk with our parents, hear them talk about their youthful times, ask them if we’ve lived up to their expectations, and how they come to terms with the fact that their child is LGBT people, most of us are under tremendous pressure.”

Liu Xiao recalled there were lots of refusals. “Actually my parents don’t like me being here, they think it’s a waste of time.” “I could not come out of the closet with my families.” “I’m afraid my mom would cry, I don’t want to upset her.”

Liu believed the hard times they’d gone through clearly reflected the dilemmas the young LGBT individuals face - generation gap, social pressure, unmet expectations of traditional families for emotional and economic support, and all the factors contradicting with individualism.

“For LGBT people, being away means more than just going on a long journey physically. Sometime, even if they’re back home, their drifting souls find no ‘hometown’ to return to.”

“Chinese families tend to be more strongly bonded by traditional values and economic ties. Young people are supposed to carry on the family lineage and provide for their aged parents,” Sam explained, adding that compared with Western people who’re more independent from their families, Chinese could hardly approve their LGBT children because of cultural and economic concerns.

The team did a survey this March before they took off to Portland for performing together with the choir of the local LGBT community. “We collected questions that LGBT people in China may want to ask their American peers,” Dan told Sino-US.com. “The most asked question is about life in retirement and providing for the aged. They just want to know how gay people in the US would deal with the issues.” 
 
In June 2018, Beijing Queer Chorus co-sponsored and performed in the first China Queer Chorus Festival in Shanghai. 
In June, 2017, the Beijing Queer Chorus holds a musical saloon event at the Frontier Center in Beijing's 798 Art District. 

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