“For gay men in China, desires for unity and familiar acceptance are unrealistic,” says Yang Yiliang, a Chinese artist in talking about one of his cut-paper pieces of art, a romantic portrait of two men titled “Paper Grooms.” He continues: “The paper is symbolic because of its fragility and flimsiness.”
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, relatively early in the cascade of decriminalization around the world. But that didn’t mean overnight acceptance. There are still few legal protections for LGBT people in employment, education, and housing, and conversion therapy, increasingly considered a cruelty by the medical community, is still common in some parts of the country. Same-sex marriage is still years away, according to local activists.
Yang, who is openly gay, had trouble finding galleries to take his work in his hometown in Hunan province.
“Small towns are more conservative in general,” Yang said. “Gallerists there would tell me that they appreciate my art a lot, but the subject is taboo and can’t be shown in public.”
Which is why his current exhibition, Pride Art Exhibition in Shanghai, means so much to him. It isn’t his alone – Yang is one of 17 featured artists in the show which has become an annual event. The artists have to be circumspect – nudity and images of “sexual invitation” are banned by law, regardless of the gender of the participants. All large scale art shows have to be authorized by the local cultural bureau, and they are allowed to be subjective in what they define as inappropriate. At least one of the originally planned artists for this year’s show was banned while he was setting up his paintings.
All the same, the show is a valuable cultural touchstone for Shanghai’s LGBT community, a place to stop and feel at home, and hopefully at rest. And perhaps, a place for the rest of the community to see the beauty in all intimacy.