The documentary filmmaker bringing China out of the closet

Fan Popo’s films explore coming out in a society where homosexuality is not widely understood or accepted

A few nights after the closing party for Shanghai pride – a pride with no parade – there was a film screening at the American cultural centre. It was held by Fan Popo, a skinny and self-deprecating young filmmaker. Walking gingerly to the front of the room, his gaze hovered between the brown linoleum floor somewhere a few metres in front of the audience, and the latticed ceiling tiles above them.

Fan is a documentary filmmaker who has made a series of shorts and two feature-length films all centred on LGBT issues in China. He has made films about the trans community, and has filmed the reactions of passers-by to gay couples posing for wedding photos on a busy street in Beijing. His features, Mama Rainbow and Papa Rainbow, follow families coming to terms with their children coming out. All of his projects are made on a shoestring budget; he is a production company of one.

In late December 2014, a friend asked Fan if he could share a link to his film, Mama Rainbow. It had been accessible on all of China’s major video streaming sites including Tudou,, and Youku, and had been doing fairly well, racking up in excess of a million views.

One day, however, he couldn’t find the link. It became clear that his film had been taken down from all of the sites without any explanation. He contacted the websites and waited for a response. A few weeks later, and Youku revealed that they had been directed by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television – or SAPPRFT, as the country’s media regulator is known – to take the film down. 

Without strong or entrenched religious organisations in China, there is no fundamental opposition to LGBT rights. The issue, at heart, is one of education and awareness

For Fan, this wasn’t a sufficient explanation. The film was innocuous. There were no mentions of sensitive words, no historical references to contentious events, no representation of corruption, no swearing, and no sex. It was, at its heart, a sentimental documentary focused on families coming to understand their gay and lesbian children.

Fan, in a process loosely analogous to a Freedom of Information request, asked SAPPRFT why they’d forced the film to be taken down. He was told flatly that they had never made such a request. As the stories didn’t match, Fan eventually decided to sue SAPPRFT – demanding to see the document that compelled the streaming sites to block his film. The filmmaker sprang to international attention when a court in Beijing accepted the case.

The Beijing No.1 Intermediate People’s Court ruled in SAPPRFT’s favour, stating there was no document, and that SAPRFT was not behind the deletion. For Fan, this was a victory. For one thing, he had garnered reams of coverage for his case in international media, as well as some neutral coverage in the domestic party mouthpiece The Global Times. If SAPRFT wasn’t involved, then the sites should be free to put his film back up.

However, one year on, and Mama Rainbow is still unavailable online. Countless conversations with Youku and have ended in obfuscation, with officials from the respective websites failing to acknowledge the result of his case against SAAPFRT. Instead, they fall back on the monotonous refrain: “I’m sorry, your film does not accord to regulations.”

Before Mama Rainbow became a piece in the larger puzzle of state censorship, it was an interesting cultural document. Following a group of women coming to terms with their children’s sexuality, the film highlighted the difficulties the LGBT community faces in a China that is still just coming to understand exactly what being queer means. “We’re lucky,” said Xiaogang Wei, the Director of Beijing podcast Queer Comrades, and one of the producers behind Fan’s films. “Here, no-one actively hates us – they just don’t understand.”

Without strong or entrenched religious organisations in China, there is no fundamental opposition to LGBT rights. The issue, at heart, is one of education and awareness. The LGBT community has nothing approaching the visibility or rights afforded to its counterparts in the West. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1997, having previously been seen as ‘hooliganism’, and was still a registered mental disorder until 2001.

Clinics still abound in China offering cures to homosexuality. This year, a documentary film crew saw John Sen, the deputy director of one of China’s largest gay rights groups, undergo treatment at a centre in Tianjin. He was offered a choice between electro-shock therapy or nausea-inducing drugs. “Your conditioned reflex is that when you see someone of the same sex, you feel love,” he was told. “Now what I want to make you feel is scared.”

A recent survey by WorkForLGBT, a China-based NGO, paints a fairly stark portrait of the country: only three per cent of the males surveyed and six per cent of the females self-identify as completely out. According to Chinese official policy, homosexuality is characterised by the three no’s: no support, no opposition, no promotion. This is why coming out in China is still a struggle, and why Mama Rainbow is an important film. 

“When I was at university, my roommate was homophobic and I could never get through to him. But then I showed him some of my favorite LGBT films, and he slowly came to understand that he had nothing to be afraid of” – Fan Popo

At the start of Shanghai Pride, I attended an evening of lectures. Because China bans all large non-state sanctioned mass gatherings, the festival has no parade. Instead, it’s scattered throughout the city, with a film festival, parties, and a 5km charity run, all taking place over a few days. The lecture topics were varied, though quite a few centred on the difficulties people had coming out in various social settings. Considering this was a pride event in Shanghai – China’s most permissive and open city – it was telling that, when the crowd was asked if they were out at work, there was an awkward silence. In the room of over a hundred LGBT participants, a smattering of hands raised. I counted less than ten.

The WorkForLGBT survey noted that only 18 per cent of the men had come out to their families. This is because the generation of Chinese parents that young homosexuals are coming out to are from the tail-end of the Mao era. Many did not receive a comprehensive general education, and sex-ed – non-existent in the 80s – is still to this day barely touched upon in schools. If the sun may now just be starting to rise for the LGBT community, the shadow of homosexuals arrested as hooligans and marginalised as mentally ill still shrouds their parent’s generation.

“I thought it was just a fad, like something from the west that people did because they thought it was fashionable,” says one of the mothers in Mama Rainbow. A university professor told me that he had had a student from another university telephone him saying that his roommate had just come out – he wanted to know if he was at risk of somehow “catching gay”, and had called the professor for advice.

While misunderstandings of what it means to be homosexual are rife, the difficulty homosexuals face is more complex than that. In any competitive society, the pressures to conform are greater, but this is compounded in a society that still hasn’t decided how to view the LGBT community. Discrimination, both subtle and overt, is prevalent. In Mama Rainbow, Xuan Mama tells us that while she accepted her child as gay, she told him, “It’s a tough road”.

Today, social security is less a net preventing anyone from falling beneath a certain level, and more a tightrope along which a talented few can precariously balance. Culturally, the burden is on offspring to support their elders. Shanghai has recently enshrined this in law, enabling parents to report neglectful children to the police, as part of a trial program that might be rolled out nationwide. This has led to what has been called the “4-2-1 phenomenon” which sees the lone children born under the one-child policy supporting two parents and four grandparents.

The one child policy, though it has now been relaxed, ratcheted up the pressure on LGBT children to remain closeted. In admitting their sexual preference, they would essentially be cutting the thin thread of the generations – not only the line that stretches into the past, but the one that would have kept them securely moored in old age.

This kind of traditional thinking is patriarchal, and means that it’s even harder for young gays and lesbians to come out to their fathers. For his second feature, Papa Rainbow, Fan decided to focus on how a group of fathers were dealing with their children coming out. As with the mothers in Mama Rainbow, Fan predominately found the fathers through Pflag-China, an offshoot of the American NGO “Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays”.

China is a patriarchal society. As Fan said to me when we chatted, “women are marginalised already”, so they are primed to be compassionate towards their gay children. Moreover, fathers in China tend to be the breadwinners, which means they are often not directly involved in their children’s lives beyond providing for them; the division of labour in the family tends to see women do the emotional lifting. Fathers are also more likely to fear the stigma associated with having gay children.

“My biggest regret is sending her to college... There is such a thing as too much education.” – Papa Li

This is common throughout the fathers featured in Papa Rainbow. Where the mothers in Mama Rainbow almost instantly accept their children, the fathers find it much more difficult. There is a painful moment in Papa Rainbow, as the camera cuts to a government employee called Papa Li, who is sitting in his living room in Shanxi talking about his daughter Momo. “My biggest regret is sending her to college,” he says. “There is such a thing as too much education.” 

In the course of the interview, he rejects the concept of homosexuality altogether; blaming western culture, which he insists doesn’t fit with Chinese thinking. He also asserts that there are no gays in the countryside, because people “are in the fields, they are working hard.”

Although he is willing to acknowledge that homosexuality might exist, Papa Li refuses to acknowledge that his daughter might be a lesbian. She says that, when she first came out to him, she was crying after breaking up with her ex. Between sobs, she showed him a picture of her girlfriend – an unmistakably feminine girl with long hair, but he categorically ignored that his daughter was coming out to him. “I just took it for granted she was with a man,” he says, with a shrug.

His wife is no more forgiving. When Momo calls and says she is considering suicide after being pressured into a straight marriage, her response is “be my guest.” Papa Li, an insert during the credits tells us, is still pushing his daughter into it.

This is the problem that countless gay children face in China today. Even Fan himself struggled with coming out. “I was making films about people coming out, but I hadn’t come out myself yet,” he explains. “I guess making these films I got to see various strategies for coming out so I planned it quite carefully. That helped smooth things a bit, but even then it took two months for my parents to accept it. It was quite tough in the beginning.”

While private tolerance is expanding and people might be out to their close friends, coming out to their parents is still incredibly fraught. That’s why there are online services providing xingshi hunying – or ‘marriages in form’ – which are basically fake marriages between gays and lesbians designed to fool their parents. One site, has roughly 500,000 members and has matched nearly 50,000 couples.

Through his documentaries, by filming the intimate conversations and the delicate moments that arise when someone comes out, Fan shows that being gay is not extraordinary or strange. “When I was at university, my roommate was homophobic and I could never get through to him,” he says. “But then I showed him some of my favourite LGBT films, and he slowly came to understand that he had nothing to be afraid of. I saw the power that film has and it inspired me to do this.”

In Papa Rainbow, there is a scene with “Pride Father” – a homosexual who married a straight woman. At the time, he hadn’t yet come to terms with his sexuality. He looks to the camera and speaks of the mistakes he made, and the pain he caused. He is now a quiet advocate for the LGBT community, and implores people not to cave to the pressures of conformity. “Just face it squarely,” he urges the camera. “It’s a normal thing.”

Learn more about Fan Popo’s work on the Queer Comrades website here