Dr Trude Sunberg shares community stories and experiences of creating the grassroots community Qspace in the heart of Beijing.
On a mild March evening in London, China Exchange presented Belonging in Beijing: LGBTQ+ in China. As part of its Element series that explores China and China’s influence on the world, the event was hosted bu Dr Trude Sunberg who discussed LGBTQ+ communities in China. The evening’s talk focused specifically on ‘Qspace‘, a grassroots community maker space which she co-founded and created in Beijing.
It is perhaps symbolic that this talk was held in Soho, the nucleus of London gay community and the hub of Chinatown. Wearing a t-shirt made during one of Qspace’s silk-screen printing workshops, Dr Sunberg started by pointing out that she is not Chinese and not there to represent all LGBTQ+ voices in China. Her talk focused largely on stories of people in China chosen by people in China. She also reflected on her own experiences through the prism of a foreigner living in Beijing. Accompanying her were some people who have frequented Qspace as their community centre. Throughout the evening, it quickly becomes obvious that the ‘space’ exists on a metaphorical as well as a literal sense.
Research shows that attitudes towards the LGBTQIA communities in urban and eastern areas of China are much more open than believed, yet there is still a clash of values within society. Below are 2 stories from Qspace members that were shared verbatim:
1) I felt no pressure to come out to people and always finds it surprising how the Chinese people open to it even though queerism is not really discussed in the mainstream social media. But I have not come out to my parents as they are very traditional and believe that heterosexual marriage and giving birth to the next generation is the part of the meaning of life. It’s sad because they believe in some truths that I cannot personally agree with. Realising and accepting my own sexual orientation seems to be the most important thing in my life and I feel I do not have to follow the same path as most people in Chinese society. This has given me the courage for every decision that I’ve made and I feel that I am special because I feel being a lesbian is special. Because I have experiences of being a minority in society makes me have more love and passion about caring about other people and living my own way of life.
2) My mother and I are not like most other Chinese mother and daughter relationships. We call each other best friends. We share everything. Except my love life. She hardly asks and I didn’t want to talk because if we started to share that part, I had to tell her I’m a lesbian. I don’t like the awkward moments when she asks about boys and the feeling that I was hiding a part of who I am form her. I did eventually come out to her during a bed talk before the Spring Festival. The first thing she said after I told her was ‘Don’t tell your father, he won’t be able to handle it.’ The last thing she told me that night was ‘Date more boys, forget your feelings with girls, you’re not that kind of people.’ The days after that night, she started to persuade me to date more boys, only the love relationship between woman and man is natural and acceptable. ‘The thoughts in your head are dangerous, that can’t be real in China.’ She would rather I be a “Sheng Nu” (leftover woman) than a lesbian. So the secret remains a secret, but it is now hers too. The society view towards sexual minorities and traditional family structure makes her prefer to live a life in lies than to accept who I am. I don’t know what the future will look like for me and my family. I love my mum and she loves me too and the only thing that changed after I came out is that now we both need to think deeply about what future we want to have; Stick to our own or compromise in the name of love.
Qspace is a centre that was started to give space and facilitate queer communities; a shared space for people to connect. Its motto, “我们 can do it”, is a play on the feminist slogan “Women Can Do it”. In Chinese, “我们” translates to “we” but phonetically reads as “wŏmen”.
The root of Qspace came from 2 projects that were already happening:
1. Taskforce XX- a monthly events for women working in tech.
2. Rainbow Ride- a stories collecting and sharing vehicle that can range from love letters, break ups, children or coming out etc.
The Rainbow Ride in particular, as more and more people were leaving stories with others commenting on these stories, highlighted a real need for a literal space for people to come together to learn, connect and be. On its opening weekend, Qspace was attended by over 120 supporters which is indicative of the demand for homosexuality and non-gender conforming shared experiences platform. It has continued to thrive with queer film nights sollowed by Q&A sessions and skill sharing workshops; These can include but not limiting to language corners, silk screen printing and research method sharing. When people with diverse interests come together, ideas are formed and alternative solutions are found. The fact these creations have built a bridge to the outside is testament to how safe the LGBTQ+ have found Qspace to be.
What is shocking but perhaps not surprising is that Qspace, its main concerns centring on the LGBTQ+ communities, is not eligible for charitable status in China. The founders have had to be innovative to source capital; it can be as simple as sales of arts created at the space, or it can be through crowdfunding and support from hackerspaces. The question of its sustainability seems to be a constant struggle. What is useful is that the group of 20 that created this space are all from varying backgrounds and it operates within a non-hierarchical, non-dogmatic structure; a co-operative. It seeks to have continuous engagements to facilitate discussions and creations rather than it being seen as just a ‘hang out’. Dr Sunberg was quick to point out that she has had to utilise some of her ‘foreigner’ privileges.
Somewhere like Qspace allows for differing voices to come through, for people to find unity in diversity and have made it possible for attitudinally difficult issues to come forth. For example, it is not uncommon now for same sex marriage activism to happen on the Western or Chinese Valentine’s days, for same sex couples to publicly perform the matrimonial ceremony even though it is legally not recognised. Such actions may challenge the more traditional views on marriage, but does not break down the strong Chinese belief of familial bond. Another example is the ‘all-gender’ toilets campaign that opens up discussions to beyond cis-gender identity. What is so wonderful about Qspace is that it has fostered a sense of inclusion and safety that is not socially or politically supported by China’s values system.
Find out more about Qspace HERE