Remembering Queer Lala Times, a lesbian publication that transcended boundaries

Society & Culture

Just a few years ago, LGBTQ voices and views were easily found on the Chinese internet. That's changed. But this is the story of Queer Lala Times, which operated openly in China from 2013 until 2016.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Established in 2013 and active through 2016, digital publication Queer Lala Times (QLT) served as an important platform for queer women and LGBTQ rights activists in China. During its four years of operation, the publication’s content was posted across social media sites, including Weibo, Douban, WeChat, and Facebook, most of which was included in two volumes published online. Its run ended in 2017, when most of its accounts were censored and removed, but the Douban page devoted to it is still accessible via a digital archive hosted by Stanford University.

The publication included a diverse range of content, including LGBTQ news, first-person essays, think pieces, translations, and information about advocacy events. But the main thing that made it stand out in the world of Chinese LGBTQ media was probably the special attention it gave to the less represented groups and underreported issues within the community, as reflected in the titles of some of its columns: “Transgender,” “Bisexuality and Pansexuality,” “Queer and Religion,” “Queer and Disability,” and “Lower-Class Queers.”

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The “Queer and Religion” column, for instance, featured a series of articles that presented LGBTQ Christians’ life stories in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. This included a Taiwanese lesbian woman’s personal account of enduring anti-LGBTQ discrimination in a conservative church in Taipei, where homophobic members wanted her to break up with her girlfriend; the couple eventually left the community and found a sense of belonging in Tong-Kwang Light House Presbyterian Church, whose congregation did not believe homosexuality is a sin.

Another article, titled “Creating our own language,” documented a community event in Beijing in 2013 that was organized by the lesbian organization Beijing Lala Salon (北京拉拉沙龙 běijīng lālā shālóng). At the event, the famous film director and professor Cuī Zǐēn 崔子恩, who was one of the first openly gay men in Chinese media, spoke to an audience of mostly lesbians. As a Catholic, Cui introduced himself as “not belonging to any specific church.” He criticized the homophobic interpretations of religious texts made by certain churches and discussed a more self-reflective way of practicing religion that can accommodate sexual minorities.

The same column also contained discussions over “queer theology” in Hong Kong among the academic and LGBTQ communities.

In addition to presenting the diversity of the Chinese LGBTQ community, Queer Lala Times also provided space for opinion pieces about LGBTQ and feminist movements, documenting several key debates that happened in the early 2010s. The “Gender/Sexuality Contentions” column, for example, included an article analyzing a heated debate between gay men activists and lesbian women activists in 2012, which mainly revolved around the lack of lesbian voices in LGBTQ discourse. Another series of articles recorded conversations between a group of activists on how to respond to a government clampdown on sex workers in Dongguan, Guangzhou, in 2014.

The publication’s emphasis on diversity and activism-oriented content is aptly encapsulated in its manifesto-like statement, which starts: “We are Lala; we are not dissoluble under the umbrellas of ‘female/women,’ ‘tongzhi/gay,’ ‘homosexuality.’ We are queer; we are not content with the binarism of gay/straight, men/women, normal/pervert.”

Lala (拉拉 lālā) is a self-identifying term used widely by lesbians in Chinese societies. It is said to derive from Notes of a Crocodile, an important piece of queer literature by Taiwanese novelist Qiū Miàojīn 邱妙津, where the main character’s nickname is Lāzǐ 拉子. This name then evolved into Lala; it first became popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong before circulating among lesbian communities on the mainland in the late 1990s.

According to an International Viewpoint article that traces the history of LGBTQ activism, the quick development of LGBTQ activism in the early 2000s was dominated by gay men’s organizations, partially due to the Chinese government’s campaigns to raise aware of HIV/AIDS, which focused on gay men and thus provided more resources for this group. Lesbian women received relatively less attention and resources. Queer Lala Times tried to foster dialogue between lesbians and other sections of the LGBTQ community, and did not define its target audience as exclusively lesbian.

Geographically, Queer Lala Times published LGBTQ stories not only from mainland China but also from other Chinese societies, which showcased a transnational perspective of China’s LGBTQ movement. Behind this publication was Chinese Lala Alliance (CLA, 华人拉拉联盟 huárén lālā liánméng), an organization started in 2008 by lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activists from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and North America. Diǎndiǎn 典典, the then editor-in-chief of QLT, said in an interview that while most of CLA’s efforts on community-building activities were centered on the mainland, activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other countries also played a significant role in forming the network.

Because trans-regional LGBTQ work was more politically sensitive, the organization kept a low public profile while running QLT and another influential annual event called the Lala Camp (拉拉营 lālāyíng), where organizers and activists from different places in and outside of mainland China gathered and exchanged experience and strategies. The organization disbanded in 2018, one year after the closure of QLT.

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Queer China is our fortnightly round-up of news and stories related to China’s sexual and gender minority population.