The students at an elite college in China found themselves on a collision course with the authorities amid a crackdown on gay and transgender expression.
Karolyn Li still remembers reading the brochure from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University when she was in high school preparing to apply to college. It highlighted a graduate who had co-founded an L.G.B.T.Q. rights group, a suggestion of inclusivity on campus that surprised Ms. Li, who identifies as queer.
Ms. Li ended up enrolling at Tsinghua. Now a 21-year-old junior, Ms. Li sees the brochure as cruelly ironic. She and her friend, Christine Huang, a 23-year-old senior, have spent the past year locked in a losing battle against the university and the country’s education authorities over gay and transgender expression.
When the two women distributed rainbow flags on campus last year, and resisted school administrators who confronted them, the university issued a punishment that would stay on their permanent records. When they tried in March to place flowers outside the dorm of a transgender classmate who died by suicide, they were surrounded by security. When they posed with rainbow flags in a photo in May, a university employee ran over and said they were not allowed to post the images online.
“All these things add up to make me wonder: How did things get so bad?” said Ms. Huang, who identifies as a lesbian.
In late May, they were told by a court in Beijing, where Tsinghua is, that it would not accept a lawsuit they had filed against the country’s education ministry to overturn the university’s punishment over the flag incident.
Ms. Huang and Ms. Li’s experiences point to the shrinking space for even subtle gay and transgender expression in China. As the ruling Communist Party has tightened controls on ideology and civil society, nationalist commentators on social media have sought to depict Chinese L.G.B.T.Q. activist groups in particular as a tool of hostile foreign forces.
A gay nightclub in Beijing in 2019. A government crackdown on L.G.B.T.Q. expression and activism has intensified since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012.Credit…Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Among the top accusations made against such groups is that they are “causing conflict within society with the goal of destabilizing society,” said Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
In May, the police in the eastern city of Hangzhou detained six gay men for 13 days for participating in what the report referred to as “lewd activities,” publicizing their names. That same month, Beijing LGBT Center, a well-known advocacy group, shut down after 15 years in operation, citing forces beyond its control.
The disbanding of the Beijing group crushed Ms. Huang, who had been a monthly donor to it. She said the center made people feel safe, citing a friend who had gone there for low-cost counseling.
Civic groups in China have long navigated ill-defined and constantly shifting margins of official tolerance, with activists often facing the threat of arrest. Ms. Huang and Ms. Li were born in the early 2000s, a period when the authorities slightly loosened social controls. Homosexuality was removed from China’s list of mental illnesses. Organizations like Shanghai Pride were able to host large public celebrations. Dozens of queer advocacy groups formed.
But under Xi Jinping, the top leader since 2012, the authorities have intensified a crackdown on human rights lawyers, feminist groups and other activists. Though Mr. Xi has not explicitly spoken about gay rights, he has emphasized Confucian values of order and obedience, in which citizens conform to traditional gender roles.
In 2016, China banned television shows and films from showing gay characters. In 2020, Shanghai Pride announced an indefinite hiatus, alluding to safety concerns.
The entrance gate to Tsinghua University in Beijing.Credit…Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
In 2021, in what activists have described as a turning point, WeChat, the most popular app in China, suddenly deleted at least a dozen accounts of college-run L.G.B.T.Q. organizations.
One of the accounts was run by Purple, a club of more than 300 members at Tsinghua that Ms. Huang and Ms. Li belonged to. All the articles its members had written — about sex education, coming out to family, mental health — vanished overnight.
Ms. Huang tried to rally her brokenhearted friends. “Although many things make people feel hopeless, we all have to keep living, and we have to be brave after this night,” she texted them.
Ms. Huang and Ms. Li became friends after arriving at college from distant worlds. Ms. Li attended foreign-language schools in Wuhan in central China. She explored her gender identity in an environment where her classmates felt comfortable standing up and accusing a politics teacher of discrimination when he said homosexuality was an illness.
Ms. Huang had a less privileged upbringing, raised largely by her grandmother in a small city in northeast China’s Jilin Province. She realized she was a lesbian when she had a crush on a female TV character, but she was terrified to reveal this to most of her classmates.
Taking part in a pride run during the Shanghai Pride festival in 2020. Shortly afterward, Shanghai Pride announced an indefinite hiatus, alluding to safety concerns.Credit…Aly Song/Reuters
With their parents, Ms. Huang and Ms. Li almost always played the part of model daughters, obeying them and getting good grades. But in high school, they also had heated fights with their parents over whether they were gay, and have since avoided the coming-out conversation with them.
Both women came to Tsinghua wanting to be free. Purple became their core social circle, a gateway to a world of new ideas. The club hosted screenings of European films about gay labor activism and organized book clubs that discussed queer theory.
The club gave them a sense of purpose. When a Purple member was at risk of contracting H.I.V., Ms. Huang helped him get off-campus testing. They tiptoed into activism, like giving flowers to the school’s female employees for International Women’s Day. To express their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, they went out to eat stewed goose — because in Chinese, the word for “goose” sounds like the word for “Russia.”
Then, last year on May 14, before a pride day in China, they spread 10 rainbow flags on a table inside a supermarket on campus. “Please take ~ #PRIDE,” they scribbled on an accompanying note.
A surveillance camera caught them.
A photo of the rainbow flags displayed by Ms. Li and Ms. Huang inside a supermarket on the campus of Tsinghua University.Credit…Christine Huang
School officials barged into their dorms that night, the women said. The school later accused them of promoting a “harmful influence,” according to written decisions by the university explaining the punishment.
The university asserted that the women had not sought permission to distribute the flags. It also accused Ms. Huang of using abusive and insulting language against university employees who had confronted her, and of sharing their names and job titles on WeChat. Ms. Huang acknowledged posting the names, but denied using abusive language. A representative for Tsinghua did not respond to requests for comment.
The punishment barred them from receiving scholarship money for six months and made it harder for them to apply to graduate school in China.
Ms. Li, a history major, is now looking to build a new life abroad, hoping to apply to graduate programs overseas.
Ms. Huang, a sociology major, recently drafted a letter to her parents revealing her sexual orientation. If the police knock on her parents’ door, she plans to send a photo of the letter to them.
When Ms. Huang got into Tsinghua, it was the talk of her hometown, a dream come true for her family. Now, she is graduating next month with no job prospects. She had hoped to work at an L.G.B.T.Q. nonprofit, but knows her options are dwindling.
In February, Ms. Huang and Ms. Li sued the education ministry because the legal system seemed the safest way to protest what happened to them.
Ms. Li and Ms. Huang sued China’s education ministry to overturn their punishment for displaying rainbow flags. They saw the lawsuit as the safest way to protest what happened to them.Credit…Gilles Sabri? for The New York Times
After the lawsuit hung in limbo for three months, they visited the courthouse on May 24 with their lawyer, only to hear from a judge that the case would not be accepted. According to the women, the judge said there would be no written explanation, but cited a regulation prohibiting lawsuits that endanger national security or undermine national unity.
They plan to challenge the decision and exhaust all legal avenues to the end, even though they know the likely outcome.
“Even if the lawsuit cannot give us justice or recognition,” Ms. Li said, “we must record in documents that we existed, worked hard and fought.”