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Gays and lesbians across China look to Wu Youjian for guidance.
In a Shanghai hotel conference room filled with some 200 young men and women, all fall silent as small woman in her early sixties tells the story of how her son came out to her.
Dressed in a simple white top and blue jeans, Wu Youjian radiates a spirit and energy that makes her seem much younger than her age.
Known as Wu Mama (Mother Wu) in China's gay and lesbian community, Wu Youjian is the first speaker at the 2010 ShanghaiPRIDE gathring to deliver a message that she believes all Chinese parents should hear: "Accept and love your children as they are."
This is an often difficult task in China, where homosexuality is rarely accepted and many choose to hide a part of their lives rather than face the social consequences of coming out.
Wu Youjian's path
I encourage the 'children' to live their lives open in the sun and be their true selves. Boys or girls, gay or straight, to me they are all my children and I will support them.
— Wu Youjian, "Mother of Gays in China"
Having already read a number of books about homosexuality, including “Homosexuality in China,” by Fang Gang, and “Subculture of Homosexuality,” by Li Yinghe, Wu says she didn't think it was a big deal when her son, Zheng Yuantao, came out to her in 1999.
Soon after telling his mother, Zheng announced he was gay during a television interview in 2004.
Wu appeared on the show as “mother of a gay son." Her appearance quickly unleashed a torrent of debate about what parents should do with their gay children, a discussion still going on today.
For the past five years, the 63-year-old retired magazine editor has been tirelessly writing a daily blog, replying to emails from parents, answering a telephone hotline and traveling around the country, organizing PFLAG meetings.
Wu Youjian: Saving face vs. saving family
In an interview after her talk at ShanghaiPRIDE, Wu points out that social pressure is the biggest obstacle between Chinese parents and acceptance of their gay children.
“They are afraid to talk about it with anyone, causing them a lot of pain,” says Wu. “That's all because they haven't thought it through.”
Wu says some parents take comfort and hope in her story, while others respond to her words -- and their children -- with stubborn resentment.
“What upsets me the most is when parents say that they think their children should sacrifice and change their sexual orientation to save the 'face' of the family,” says Wu. “I ask them, 'Is your face more important than your child's happiness?'”
For many parents in China today, the answer is still, "yes." This is one of the reaons Wu decided to attend ShanghaiPRIDE.
“I have no big goals.”
With a full schedule of blogging, emails, phone calls, meetings and lectures, Wu barely has time for morning exercises in the park. When asked what drives her, she points to a sense of social responsibility.
What upsets me the most is when parents say that they think their children should sacrifice and change their sexual orientation to save the 'face' of the family.
— Wu Youjian, "Mother of Gays in China"
“My son felt he had a responsibility to tell the public who he is,” she says, smiling as she remembers the moment. “I have even more of a social responsibility to do something [to support him].”
Although called one of China's most prominent “gay rights activist” by the media, Wu says that she has no "big goals," at least not yet.
“We are not at the stage of tackling gay rights in China yet,” Wu says. “But I am doing what I can do to help people and families now.”
Wu believes her work makes her life busier, fuller and happier than it might otherise have been.
"That's why so many people call me 'mama,'" she says. "With my work, I can act as a mother to so many people."
Love with no strings attached
Wu says she has four pieces of advice for all Chinese parents:
“Having a gay child is not a bad thing; having a gay child not an ugly thing; having a gay child not wrong; and having a gay child really is nothing if you treat it that way.”
“With the change in attitude of the mainstream media and more knowledge about homosexuality, parents can learn to look at things from different perspectives and accept their children,” Wu continues.
“I encourage the children to live their lives open in the sun and be their true selves,” she says. “Boys or girls, gay or straight, to me they are all my children and I will support them”
“We believe Wu Mama has an important message that every Chinese parent out there should hear -- love and accept your gay children as they are, with no strings attached,” Kenneth Tan, organizer of 2010 ShanghaiPride. “That's why we invited her here to speak.”