The first time director and movie buff Cui Zi'en tried to hold a gay and lesbian film festival in 2001, it was shut down by police before it even opened. When he tried to organize a gay cultural festival in 2005, five dozen police officers swarmed the venue, closing it.
But this Wednesday, Cui and other organizers managed to pull off the opening to the five-day Beijing Queer Film Festival with no police and no disruptions — drawing only an appreciative and low-key crowd to the Songzhuang Art District on the city's outskirts.
For China's gay community, this week's film festival and an art exhibition on sexual diversity in Beijing, along with last week's first gay pride festival in Shanghai, are quiet steps forward after years of slow but unmistakable progress.
Cui, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, said the events mark a significant moment for China's fledgling gay movement.
"The biggest change is that I'm not the only one doing this," he said. "There's more support from the gay community. Society has become more relaxed and open-minded in its thinking."
Note of caution
But he sounded a note of caution that progress is often accompanied by setbacks, saying organizers would not consider the events a success unless they make it to their closing ceremony Sunday unscathed.
"In China, we were the first to put on queer events. In those events, we've had interference and that had lasting influences," Cui said.
"(Now) we've had a successful opening and if we can also achieve a successful closing to the event, it will have another kind of impact," he said.
China has indeed eased its control over some aspects of gay life. In 1997, sodomy was removed from the country's list of crimes, although homosexuality was not taken off the list of mental disorders until 2001.
In recent years, the gay community in China has gone from being virtually invisible to establishing a small foothold in society. In large cities, gay bars have opened and gay and lesbian activist and support groups have sprouted. Internet access to gay groups online has helped ease the isolation for those who live in rural areas.
Even so, the vast majority of the country's gay and lesbian population continues to face discrimination and stigmatization. Most remain deeply closeted in a still highly conservative society. Gay Web sites are often blocked by the government's Internet firewalls.
Still, community organizers see progress in the fact that gay-themed events that would have been banned outright even a few years ago are now being permitted.
"Ten years ago, this would have been completely impossible," said curator Yang Ziguang, who helped put together the Beijing art show, the first in the country to explore sexual diversity and gender issues. The works by 16 artists include explicit explorations of gay and gender issues.
The auditorium for the film festival's opening movie — a story of a Chinese man who searches for the soul of his dead Swiss lover — was packed with a lively crowd of about 100 people, mostly young and proudly gay.
Others who came were simply curious to know more about gay issues, a segment sought out by organizers who wanted to encourage dialogue between the gay community and the wider public.
"I don't know that much about the lifestyle so I was curious," said Du Jie, 30, an artist who lives in the area. "I really liked the movie. You see on-screen the raw emotions in the relationship between them. It's a very good opportunity for the public to better understand the gay community."
Not everything has gone smoothly
That's not to say that everything has gone smoothly. The art show curators ran into problems with local authorities just before opening day last Sunday.
"I used to think China was becoming more and more open. On TV, movies and magazines, you hear more and more about these issues," said Gogo, a second curator who goes by one name. "But before the exhibit started, they came and told us 'You can't do this.' That changed my mind a little about how ready China really is."
Furious negotiations followed, and in the end only four works were removed — including one photo showing a man holding a fish over his crotch and a painting depicting two naked men in a sexual act. Organizers decided to leave the empty white frames hanging on the wall as a statement on censorship.
Despite the initial problems, the exhibit's opening drew an estimated 500 people — an enthusiastic public response that left its organizers pleasantly shocked.
The organizers said they made a concerted effort to keep the events low profile to ward off unwanted attention. There were no fliers or public advertisements for the events — only announcements circulated on Web sites. And they chose to hold it in the remote Songzhuang Art District, almost an hour's drive from downtown Beijing.
"If we were to advertise this all over the place, then we would only cause problems for ourselves," said Zhu Rikun, another film festival organizer.
Low-key approach at gay pride festival
The same low-key approach was taken by organizers of the country's first gay pride festival last week in Shanghai, China's commercial hub. They carefully planned a week's worth of movie screenings, art shows and sports events — all held in private venues instead of public spaces, said festival spokesman Kenneth Tan.
Despite the attempt to avoid problems, several events still ended up getting delayed or canceled by authorities who claimed organizers didn't have the correct permits, said Tan.
Still the festival got high praise from the China Daily, the country's official English-language newspaper, which ran a front-page article lauding organizers for sending a strong signal about "greater acceptance and tolerance."
Overall, China has been slowly moving in a direction of more openness toward the gay community, Tan said.
"I think the government has given a lot of space for the local gay community to grow and flourish," he said. "I've been in China for seven years and the changes I've seen in the Shanghai gay scene is tremendous. It's a metamorphosis."