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Gay pride in China? Yes and no.

Shanghai hosts the country's first ever gay pride festival, a bit uneasily.

Drag queen performers get ready to take part in mainland China's first Gay Pride week at a bar in Shanghai June 13, 2009. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

HONG KONG — If the 2008 Olympic Games was Beijing’s coming-out party, last week it was finally Shanghai’s turn. The city of 20 million held the country’s first ever gay pride festival.

Shanghai Pride featured seven days of film screenings, plays and panel discussions capped, on June 13, by a blowout bash. There were drag shows, drumming and (symbolic) same-sex weddings. But there was no parade. Public gatherings are verboten, and organizers decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

The event was a victory for Shanghai activists and, they hope, a step toward gay rights in China. But it is not, as one observer put it, the great leap forward. The parade problem points to Beijing’s ambivalence toward the very notion of pride. “In today’s China you can be gay,” explained Bin Xu, a veteran LGBT campaigner. “But you can’t be political.”

Though references to same-sex pairings dot the Chinese literary cannon, the People’s Republic has taken a hard line on homosexuality. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1997, but it was not until 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatric Association ruled homosexuality was not, in fact, a mental illness. For the majority of China’s estimated 30 million homosexuals, discrimination, isolation and stigma persist.

Still, many were surprised that a pride parade was considered politically sensitive in China’s cosmopolitan commercial capital. Shanghai, like many Chinese cities, has a vast and vibrant gay scene that operates with little interference from Beijing. The government’s hands-off approach is sometimes called the Triple No Policy: no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. It is the Chinese equivalent of "don’t ask don’t tell," an opaque tactic that critics claim leaves both activists and ordinary people caught in an invisible web of rules that dictate when and how you can and — or can’t — be gay.

Xu, who founded Common Language, a grassroots gay rights group, has been caught in that web for the better part of 10 years. She calls the difference between the China of the late 1990s and the China of today “the difference between sky and earth” for gays and lesbians. But, she said, sometimes the old rules, or no rules, apply.

Shanghai Pride’s predecessors certainly found this true. In 2005, a group led by outspoken Chinese filmmaker Cui Zi'en tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a gay rights festival in Beijing. The organizers were trailed by police and prospective venues were repeatedly shut down. The police often cited fire code violations, or licensing problems. “No matter where we moved,” Xu said, “they always found some problem.”