Last July, for the first time in its 12-year history the Beijing Queer Film Festival came to a close without problems or government interference - a milestone in a country where homosexuality was considered a crime until 1997 and classified as a mental illness until 2001.
Its success was encouraging for China’s gay activists and filmmakers, including festival organiser Fan Popo.
Fan, 28, first became involved in gay activism as a film festival volunteer in 2005, when he was a student at the Beijing Film Academy. That year, the programme was cut short when the venue’s supervisor kicked out the festival staff and volunteers.
“This incident affected me a lot. I decided to do something for my identity and my community,” said Fan, who now campaigns for gay rights by making films on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues and screening them at universities, film clubs and gay clubs.
“You cannot really do political campaigns, so campaigning through cultural activities becomes the main method,” Fan said, noting that censorship is a challenge for independent “underground” films like his. “Our films are still not able to enter the mainstream film market and be seen by ordinary audiences.”
Fan filmed “Mama Rainbow” - a documentary featuring six mothers of gays and lesbians across China - in cooperation with the China chapter of PFLAG, an NGO for parents, families and friends of LGBT people.
“Back in 2010, it was very difficult to find even just six parents. PFLAG China only had a dozen volunteers, and four of them were willing to appear in my film.”
Now PFLAG China is one of the most influential Chinese NGOs tackling discrimination against LGBT people.
Wu Youjian, a veteran magazine editor and the founder of PFLAG China, is the first mother in China to openly support her gay child. In Guangzhou, she organises dinner parties for parents and children to talk through their issues and try to understand each other. Some gays have even come out to their parents at these meetings.
There are signs of growing acceptance.
“More of my friends are willing to discuss it with their family members, no matter what attitudes their families may have towards homosexuality,” Fan said.
Yet the pressure to comply with tradition remains strong, with an estimated 80 percent of the country’s 30 to 40 million gay men and women getting married, according to experts.
Professor Zhang Beichuan, a sexologist and gay rights supporter, estimates that China has 16 million “homowives” - that is, women deceived into marriage by gay men.
There is also a new trend of gay men marrying gay women as a formality - to escape parental pressure and to put on a show for their families.
In the rare instances that Chinese media and films address LGBT issues, they often play to stereotypes or mock them, Fan said.
“It makes it more difficult for ordinary people to understand sexual minorities,” he said. “Many audiences don’t know much about homosexuality. They are genuinely curious.”
Some people who attend his screenings have asked him very personal questions: Why are you gay? How do you have sex?
Media and cinema can help educate, but censorship must be lifted, Fan said, noting that the biggest obstacle to realising equal rights is not culture or people’s mindset.
“The biggest force in homophobia... is a homophobic government. Actually what it fears is not homosexuality. It fears all aspects of democracy. When gay rights are brought up as a part of a democratic society, the government is scared. Our government is autocratic, and we citizens don’t have referendums, so we have no rights to change the laws.”
In March 2013, PFLAG China published an open letter from nearly 200 parents to Chinese lawmakers, demanding that their children be allowed to legally marry and have children.
Renowned sexologist Li Yinhe, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has tried for years to get a proposal to legalise same-sex marriage before lawmakers. However, she has been unable to find support from the minimum of 30 deputies - out of the more than 3,000 deputies in the national congress - needed to move the bill forward.
Meanwhile, NGOs like Shanghai NvAi are organising lectures, screenings and informal gatherings to promote gender equality.
“You should be able to choose whether you want to wear a pink dress or black trousers. Gender pluralism means we need to defy labels,” Fan said. “Then you can say: You are homosexual, I’m heterosexual, we are different, but we are equal.”