China may have officially de-listed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001, but professional approaches to treating the mental health issues of LGBT people in China still vary widely. A college student is currently suing the Ministry of Education over the publication of school textbooks describing gay people as mentally ill, while the spectre of conversion therapy continues to haunt much of mainstream discourse on sexuality and mental health.
On the flip side, interest in the impact of sexuality and gender on mental health is growing among Chinese psychologists and psychotherapists. This year, for the first time, the organisers of the country’s largest convention of psychologists and psychotherapists – the National Psychology Conference, held in September in Beijing – invited overseas experts to deliver presentations on this controversial topic.
One of these experts was Dominic Davies, founder of Pink Therapy, a UK-based NGO specialising in gender sexuality relationship diversities (GSRD). Pink Therapy’s expertise stretches beyond LGBTQ communities to embrace the full spectrum of sexual behaviours, orientations and gender identities, offering support for those who might find themselves excluded by organisations focused on LGBT clients – for example, the kink community, or people in polyamorous or other non-traditional relationships. Pink Therapy’s training programmes and summer schools are now accepting students from across the globe as the therapy profession slowly awakens to the importance of understanding how sexuality influences mental health. China, too, is taking note.
'Before Beijing I’d had no contact with the People’s Republic,' Davies begins over dumplings in Ritan Park. 'I was asked to speak about the key lessons in working with gender and sexual relationship diversities. That this topic got onto the programme is a significant event in history. Even in the UK, counsellors and psychotherapists aren’t trained in sex, let alone LGBT issues. Mainstream bodies do not talk about it. You might spend five years in training, and get three hours on sexual diversity.'
Davies wasn’t sure what to expect from his visit, which was facilitated by the Beijing LGBT Centre. He spoke in an auditorium built to accommodate 200, to an audience of around 30. While his hosts were disappointed with what they saw as a poor turnout, Davies was not.
'I’ve been doing this since the ’80s, and I’ve never had the main platform at a national psychotherapy conference,’ he smiles. ‘I’ve been used to small numbers in this subject area. What was good was the conference convener attended and stayed throughout, and apparently a key editor of psychology textbooks was also present. From small acorns, great oaks will grow.'
He says he’s struck by both the challenges faced by LGBT people in China, and also the potential for progress. 'One thing that is a challenge, as I see it, is to form an adult emotional self and develop a psychosexual self when you have to keep your relationships and identity a secret,' he remarks, relating the story of an acquaintance who has kept his boyfriend of over two years a secret from his six college dormmates. 'That blew my mind. How can one develop into an emotionally healthy adult when you’re hiding who you are from your peers, never mind your parents?'
One concept Davies has experience of that he feels might have relevance in a culture as constrained by heteronormativity and parental expectations as China’s, is 'inviting in' as an alternative to 'coming out.'
The concept involves a client gradually opening up to individual friends and family members about their sexuality, treating it as letting them in on an important and wonderful aspect of their personality, rather than rolling out a fact like a piece of bad news. By forming a strong support network, the theory goes, individuals can come out at their own pace, forming the bedrock that will allow them to live comfortably and safely with their own sexual identity.
'Universal coming out is not the panacaea that psychologists used to believe it was,' Davies says. 'For many people, coming out is potentially dangerous for their health or physical wellbeing. Chinese people I’ve spoken to don’t want fake marriages or marriages of convenience, but they also say they “can’t” come out. How do you make the social changes, and then work with parents and families, to resolve these intractable problems? Coming from comfortable Britain I haven’t got a clue. But what I didn’t have, growing up in a small town, was the internet. The internet has brought marginalised individuals into communities. They can hook into all sorts of knowledge about sexualities and gender identities, helping them not to feel so isolated.’
For more information on Pink Therapy, visit their website. You can also learn about counselling services at the Beijing LGBT Centre here.