Reporting from Beijing

A couple of months back, I received an invitation from the Beijing LGBT Center to participate in the National Psychologist’s Conference  first ever forum on LGBT psychology.  It was a wonderful opportunity to present some of our work in Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversities and I was going to be sharing the platform with a local Chinese psychologist and media personality and Dr Lee Beckstead from Utah, who has been doing a lot of work around Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE).
My schedule went through at least six different iterations as the Centre keep finding other significant events for me to be involved in and they applied to the British Embassy for a grant to sponsor my visit.  I was somewhat pessimistic whether this might get granted given my decision to publicly decline our former Prime Minister David Cameron’s invitation to attend his LGBT Garden Party but fortunately that didn’t seem to count against me.

I arrived last Friday afternoon (the August Bank Holiday weekend) and on Saturday morning at the equivalent of 2am GMT, I began a day’s training of the psychologists and volunteers at the LGBT Centre.  There were around 20 people attending the training in person and a live video link to a bunch of other psychologists across China.  I was very impressed with how a small organisation handled the technology so smoothly and efficiently.

I also brought some books with me to present to the centre so they can get access to some of the information we find useful in our trainings.

The training went well with consecutive translation provided by some volunteers and my presentation slides had been translated into Chinese in advance.  After what was a very tiring day of training a big group of us went out for dinner and got to know each other a bit better. One of the interesting differences between Chinese dining and British dining is they often start with sweet things and end with soup (this particular restaurant was famous for a delicious pear soup, which we drank as as a tea throughout the meal)!

 I fell into bed at about 8.30pm China Time dosed with sleeping tablets and melatonin and slept soundly for seven hours!

On Sunday morning accompanied by Atchoo, one of the volunteers at the centre, I went to find a tailor as I had this fanciful idea to have a suit made whilst here.  I’d done some research on the Internet and found an article written several years ago about the top 10 tailors in Beijing.  The person I saw is Feifei and since the article appeared, two other businesses have opened alongside her all using similar names!

It was fluke we happened to walk into the original Feifei.  She very carefully took note of my scoliosis distorted frame and made some very careful measurements and told me to come back for a fitting the following day!

Atchoo took me for some lunch and then off to the National Psychologists Conference at the Beijing International Conference Centre.  An enormous and impressive building.  About 2000 psychologists from across China attend this conference and so we’d anticipated a good turn out of around 200 for our forum.  In the end we had about 30 people attending.  The convener of the whole conference welcome us and opened the session by saying how important it was that this subject is being addressed and he remained for the forum despite there there being two major figures in Chinese Psychology  presenting elsewhere in the building (and probably taking away most of the potential audience).

The first presenter was a bit of a local celebrity psychologist, she has a TV show and huge social media outreach and was exceptionally pretty.  The convener had invited her to present and she had the first hour and a half of the session, leaving 30 mins each for Dr Beckstead and myself.  She focussed a lot on her work with young gay men who are conflicted about being gay and the challenges they face.

Around 90% of LGB people in China are not able to come out to their parents and most would be expected to marry and produce children. Many families will only have one child (the policy has changed but that’s more relevant for future generations)  This can create a lot of tension within the marriage if the wife discovers at some point that she’s married to a gay man.  There have been quite a few articles in the press about women feeling tricked into marriage by duplicitous gay men.  Domestic Violence/Intimate Partner Violence is also quite a big issue here where I suspect the frustration of feeling obligated to marry and repress one’s sexuality creates immense marital tensions.

There are very few out LGBT psychologists in China.  Most of the volunteer therapists at the Center are not LGBT which is one of the things which struck me as a difference between LGBT Counselling organisations in the UK and here.

After the Forum, we went for dinner in this incredibly exciting four floor 24 hour restaurant.  The hustle and bustle was incredibly exciting at first but by the end of the meal the noise and shouting were playing against my jetlag and I needed my bed!  Bedtime by 8.30pm again! IMG_0012

On Monday Lee Beckstead and I went to the Forbidden City accompanied by Eddy had been our interpreter the day before.  It was very helpful to have someone who knew how to navigate things and Eddy was great fun.  The city is a vast series of palaces dating from around the 15C.  Most of the rooms are closed but we weren’t able to enter those which were ‘open’, but just peer through the doors or windows at the immense throne inside.

Later that afternoon I returned to Feifei for my fitting.  In around 24 hours she’s virtually made the suit and one of two shirts!  She compensated brilliantly for my particular frame and build and the garments had a few minor adjustments and we agreed I’d return on Wednesday to collect the suit!

I dashed off (well if you can call dashing in Beijing traffic jams) to a celebratory dinner thrown in Lee and my honour where we got to meet some of the key movers and shakers in the Beijing LGBT Community who support the work of the centre.  Susie Jolly a former colleague of Petra Boynton whom I know through Meg-John and who works for the Ford Foundation here, plus Fan Popo a young independent film maker who gave me some. DVD’s of his latest films.  He’ll be off to Washington DC for another film festival premiere next week.  Ajay who runs an NGO and co-ordinates the AIDS walk which takes place along the Great Wall of China which must be one of the most stunning locations for such an event. James Wang  who is coordinating the SOGIE and HIV programmes for UNDP and Andrew Speke from the British Embassy who sponsored my visit here.  It was a brilliant meal – entirely vegetarian, but where you’d not notice any absence of meat.  The dishes kept coming as did the incredible fruit tea/soup!

On Tuesday I had a supervision group the centre with about 8 of their psychologists and two people presented their clients. I was really impressed by their knowledge and contributions to each other’s case work.  They were all fairly young, mostly heterosexual, but clearly very insightful and well trained.  It was a real pleasure to hear their work and I felt I contributed very little to their clinical thinking.  Although I did get a chance to introduce them to my Sex and Gender Grid as a tool for exploring various aspects of identity and experience.IMG_0003
After lunch,  Joelle the programme manager, accompanied me to the British Embassy where Andrew had invited Iron the Executive Director of the centre and I to make a presentation to Embassy staff on LGBT Mental Health in the UK and China.  Around a dozen people attended including uding one via Video conference from Shanghai.  Iron was magnificent in how she knew how to tell the right stories, provide research and engage the audience and between us we covered a lot of ground off the cuff (the notes I’d made on my phone in preparation for the meeting had to be locked away on entry to the building for security reasons, no phones allowed inside).


Joelle, Iron and I on the porch of the British Embassy with Susie Jolly from the Ford Foundation in the background!

Wednesday was my day off – for shopping and Eddy offered to take me around and find the things I wanted.  We also collected the suit and I’m super impressed (as was he when he learned my hand made shirt was half the price of the one he bought in a shop prior to the Forum on Sunday)!

On Thursday, I had a 10am briefing meeting with the interpreter for the WHO meeting on Friday.  Noon was Lunch with Jack Smith who was interviewing me for Beijing Time Out (we sat and ate delicious Veggie Dumplings in Ritan Park.  At 4pm interviewed by Atchoo at the LGBT Centre and 6pm I was involved in a 3 hour discussion and Q&A around Transgender issues with over 20 local community members!IMG_0022

On Friday afternoon, there was a meeting hosted by WHO Beijing and attended by some professors of psychology,senior psychologists and psychiatrists and doctors and the UNDP HIV Lead representative James Wang. The meeting was also attended by Lottie Murphy Senior Counsellor on Health at the British Embassy (it was she who signed off on my visa invitation to sponsor my trip to China). It was a hugely significant meeting looking at what China can do to bring about the end of Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (aka conversion therapy or gay cure therapy).  I shared our work in the UK with regard to the Memorandum of Understanding and learned about what they’ve been doing in China.

In China, Homosexuality was removed from their diagnostic manual of diseases in 2000 (the WHO declassified it in 1993). But since then there have been multiple accounts of people being given aversion therapy in state hospitals, where these have been challenged, they deny or state it’s talking therapies (one therapist expected the patient to attend a series of five hour talking therapy sessions).  The fees for these ‘treatments’ are also very high compared to regular therapy.

We discussed maybe getting one of the biggest psychological professional bodies to start an LGBT Psychology section to conduct research into evidence based practice and training.  They’re also considering forming a working group to explore a Chinese Memorandum of Understanding to be signed off by all their major bodies, much as we have.


After the meeting – it was off to dinner – again!  You can tell, I was fed very well.  Over dinner I was presented with various gifts from the Centre: some delicious teas, a Moon cake, and some sweet figurinesIMG_0321