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Rights Groups Criticize Chinese Crackdown on Gay Festival

Human rights groups are protesting a recent crackdown on China's gay and lesbian community, which has been slowly moving into the open.

In 2001, China took homosexuality off the list of official mental illnesses. Human Rights Watch's Scott Long points to this as among recent positive moves. But he says Chinese authorities have taken a step back when they banned what would have been the country's first-ever gay and lesbian culture festival.

"Until about four years ago, the Chinese medical profession was still following a version of the diagnostic manual that still listed homosexuality as an illness," said Mr. Long. "That has also changed, but that may not have filtered down into how individual doctors or just ordinary people perceive it. Things have certainly gotten better, though, but this latest raid shows that the government can still step back, as well as forward."

Human Rights Watch and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network wrote joint letters to the Chinese government, decrying what they described as human rights abuses. Chinese authorities had banned organizers from using the originally planned venue for the event, which included several days of films, plays, exhibitions and seminars about homosexuality. Then, on Friday, when some organizers tried to move the festival to a private bar, police raided the bar and forcibly shut down the event.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The executive director of the Canadian organization, Joanne Cseste, said she was especially disappointed at the crackdown because she felt the festival had the potential to raise awareness of a still very sensitive subject among the Chinese public.

"And in that sense, it's a real shame because this was not a bunch of people with megaphones on the street," she said. "These people, these were artworks and films and other things that could really reach out to the public."

One of the most important issues for gays and lesbians is the ability to be open about their sexual orientation, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Paula Ettelbrick. She adds that this also applies to homosexuals in China.

"If the community there feels that they need to find a space in public, certainly in a large city like Beijing, and that they are ready as a group to be out, that in many ways is the most important feature," she noted. "Nobody around the world is ready for gay people to come out. We had to eventually, as a community, in every piece of the world, find the time in which we needed to be more out publicly and to start changing awareness and attitudes about who we are."

Ms. Ettelbrick adds that she thinks crackdowns like the one in China are an indication of what she describes as the increased visibility of homosexuals around the world. She adds her belief that many countries feel that homosexuality is a western concept that is being imposed on them.

"And I think there is a concern on the part of other parts of the world, and a resistance to gay people, not just as gay people, but as encroachments from the west," she added. "And that's a very clear signal that comes out of many parts of the world."

Official statistics list approximately 30 million homosexuals in China, although the state-run Xinhua news agency acknowledges that few Chinese will openly say if they are gay or lesbian.