Ah Qiang, executive director of PFLAG China, is passionate about helping other LGBT people in his country be out and open with their parents.
He knows personally how great the pain can be for those who aren’t, even in a country where being LGBT remains a nationwide taboo.
“Unfortunately in 2006, my mother got very sick and died before I could come out to her,” Ah Qiang said during a recent visit to the Los Angeles LGBT Center with other PFLAG leaders and volunteers. “I feel so bad. My mother was my dearest person so I would never be myself with her. Of course I know a lot of Chinese people just like me. They did not come out and told a lot of lies to their parents.
“I wanted to come out, I wanted to be myself,” he added. “It’s more comfortable. I didn’t want to pretend as a straight man. I could not do that. This is life, it’s not a performance.”
Ah Qiang, 40, was a volunteer for a then very-small PFLAG China in 2011 when he volunteered to be a roadie for AIDS/LifeCycle. During the seven-day bike ride produced by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and San Francisco AIDS Foundation, he had an epiphany.
“I saw that an NGO (non-governmental organization) could have this kind of very big, huge event,” he recalled. “I met a lot of people there, made a lot of friends. I liked the feeling, the atmosphere. I said to myself, ‘I just want these feelings. I want people to trust each other. China is large and people don’t trust each other. So I just wanted to make those feelings happen in China.”
It was during that San Francisco to Los Angeles bike ride that Ah Qiang decided he would go from part-time volunteer to full-time activist. On the flight back to China, he got busy mapping out a strategy to grow PFLAG China.
Making the Leap to Full-Time Activism
Ah Qiang had been making a good living by running his own small but successful delivery business. But he decided to give it up so he could embark on full-time activism. He got together with a friend who had experience in fundraising and was soon able to open a PFLAG office and hire two people.
PFLAG China encourages LGBT people to embrace their own identity and to improve communication and understanding between LGBT people and their families and friends. The organization also works to improve the visibility of LGBT people and advocates for equality.
Ah Qiang initially spread the word through a messaging group that enabled people to communicate but remain anonymous. They quickly opened a helpline with a few volunteers and were contacted by 15 people the first night. Things took off from there.
“Some parents when they enter their first meeting, they just cry a lot,” he said. “After that, they want to support their LGBT kids.”
He tells the story of one mother who was fighting with her gay son because she wanted him to marry a woman. But the son refused and moved to Singapore to work and get away from his mother whose calls and messages he ignored.
Finally, the son gave his mother information about a PFLAG conference with this ultimatum: ‘If you do not support me, I don’t want to come back.”
The mom contacted a local chapter, went to a meeting and tearfully told others there that her son had fled. She eventually sent a message to her son saying: ‘I want you to find someone.’ He quickly got in touch with her, they reconciled and will be attending next year’s national conference together.
Operating Under Limitations
PFLAG China has learned to operate and grow without any real trouble from the government or law enforcement authorities. But they have had to, at times, change the time and location of some of their events because of objections from local police.
“We openly do our work,” Ah Qiang said. “If we do events, we try to have contact with the local police. If it’s a sharing meeting with the parents, it’s no problem. If you do some training to empower people, we have to be a little bit more careful.”
The organization now has approximately 120,000 members, a full-time staff of eight people and more than 3,000 volunteers. It has chapters in 52 cities and more than 300 activities are held each year.
Finding Family Support
Although he will never be able to come out to his mom, Ah Qiang has found comfort in being able to come out to his father and his siblings.
“I knew I had to come out to my father,” he said. “The year after my mother died, I invited my father to spend Spring Festival (also called Chinese New Year) with me and I came out to him. I told him my story and after an hour I said, ‘Dad, do you have any questions for me?’ He stood up and said, ’I have only one question. Who will take care of you when you get older.’”
Ah Qiang told his father about his boyfriend and about all his gay friends and the community they had formed. He said they would take care of each other.
“Then my father said: ‘Okay, what do you want to have for dinner?’ After that, he was just okay. Before I came out to my father, I came out to my sisters and my brother. Those are easier. I didn’t ask their permission. I just said, ‘This is my true life.’”