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ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Just a few years ago, homosexuality in China was classified as a mental illness. Anyone caught engaged in homosexual activities could be sent to jail. That's no longer the case, but today, gays in China continue to endure discrimination. For some, the way to fight back is by going public. As Joy Ma reports from Beijing, that's especially true among Chinese lesbians.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOY MA: A group of 20-somethings is distributing red roses to pedestrians in front of a busy shopping mall in Beijing. Giving out red roses is nothing new, but what they're doing would have been unimaginable a few years ago. These people are lesbians, and they're promoting homosexual marriage in China.

Ms. TOBIO LIN (Chinese Lesbian): (Chinese spoken)

MA: May all that love find happiness together, 24-year-old lesbian activist Tobio Lin (ph) says, quoting an old Chinese proverb as she hands out the red roses. Things have changed over the past 11 years. In 1997, Doctor Mi Si Hor (ph) and other Chinese activists held a meeting in a bar in Beijing. They were so worried about attracting the attention of the police, they bought a cake and told people they were celebrating a friend's birthday.

Dr. MI SI HOR (Chinese Lesbian): (Through translator) We whispered to each other to avoid being caught by the plain-clothes policemen.

MA: Police in China no longer search public venues to arrest the gays, but authorities can still use unrelated regulations to ban homosexual activities. About one and a half years ago, a gay-themed art exhibition was banned, and all the art was moved from the gallery to a bar. The authorities then used a fire regulation to close the bar. Dr. Hor has been in the most major developments in China's lesbian community. She has seen some progress.

Dr. HOR: (Through translator) The major change is that there is more information about the lesbians now and more means of communication.

MA: But Chinese society is much more familiar with gay men than lesbians. Gay men are known to the public through novels, plays, and movies and even more so because of HIV-AIDS. In general, they attract more attention from both the government and the public. So some lesbians have chosen to gather in public venues, both to communicate among themselves and to attract public attention. Activist An Kor (ph) started Beijing's first formal lesbians salon. It is called "La La Salon". La la is a respectful term for lesbians in Chinese.

(Soundbite of people speaking Chinese)

MA: Every Saturday afternoon in the cafe, lesbians come for teatime gathering. This salon attracts hundreds of people. Some come to Beijing just to participate. During the three years she has hosted the salon, An Kor has seen great change in lesbians' attitudes towards society.

Ms. AN KOR (Chinese Lesbian Activist): (Through translator) In the beginning, people just wanted emotional support and to confide in each other. Gradually, they began to realize the importance of getting organized and even seeking legal protection.

MA: When I asked Biu Bin (ph) why she felt the need to crusade for the legalization of homosexual marriage, she told me her heartbreaking story. Her beloved girlfriend was a government official. The fact that Biu was out of the closet was a threat to her girlfriend's career, and she decided to break-up. After feeling extremely depressed and even considering suicide, Biu Bin eventually realized she was not alone in her experience.

Ms. BIU BIN (Chinese Lesbian): (Through translator) Only when discrimination against homosexuality is ended, and lesbians aren't afraid of losing their jobs or their fortunes, will we be able to live with our beloved free from worries.

MA: But there's a long way to go for lesbians to gain legal protections. What they really want now is social acceptance and tolerance. Liu Hor (ph) is a famous scholar of homosexuality. A recent survey she did shows that, at least in the cities, Chinese people are getting more tolerant. Regardless, individual gays still have unpleasant experiences.

(Soundbite of mixer)

MA: Shu Tol (ph) and her girlfriend, Ming Min (ph), are artists. They're making soy-milk for breakfast in their cozy apartment. One day, they were walking in a market when a husband and a wife shouted look, gays, as if they were freaks. This experience made them realize how important it was for society to understand gays, so they decided to make a documentary about Chinese lesbians.

Ms. SHU TOL (Chinese Artist): (Through translator) I'm making this film for all Chinese people. So many lesbians are finding the courage to speak up. I want to gain the attention of the people, to shake them up and make them think.

MA: But Shu Tol and others like her are finding that, though they're ready to face Chinese society, society may not be ready to face them.

Ms. TOL: (Through translator) Chinese society is not tolerant at all. We didn't do anything wrong, but people treat us like mistakes.

MA: Back at the shopping mall where Ms. Biu (ph) was distributing roses, one girl accepted a flower, but when she heard what it was for, she immediately threw the rose back. Supporting lesbians, she asked? Forget it. For NPR News, I'm Joy Ma in Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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