How the Strength of LGBTQ+ Communities Indicates Differences in Freedom Across Asia

Japan Pride Parade

The the LGBTQ+ community has battled for decades to secure their basic human rights.  This article analyzes the varying degrees of success of LGBTQ+ movements in China and Japan, especially how they not only indicate different levels of freedom, but also the vital role that “people power ” has in society’s aptitude for development. 


Most LGBTQ+ gatherings in China have occurred in an underground environment. Its citizens don’t have much of a voice; with every political group affiliated under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and president Xi Jinping, China’s government is effectively a dictatorship where dissenting opinions can place people in danger.1 LGBTQ+ communities gathered in secret over WeChat, the primary social media app in Asia, giving support to each other because they couldn’t confide in anyone around them.2 Nearly sixty percent of the Chinese LGBTQ+ community is at a greater risk of depression due to loneliness, anxiety of being outed  and lack of identity affirmation, according to a health survey conducted by the Beijing LGBT Centre.3 They are also five times more likely to consider suicide. These WeChat groups, while hidden and online, have been integral for the LGBTQ+ community in China.

However, a lack of government support can shut down even the most successful attempts for the advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights. In 2014, an inspiring milestone within the Chinese LGBTQ+ community occurred when a judge ruled in favor of LGBTQ+ rights for the first time ever in the country. Yanhui Peng, co-founder of LGBT Rights Advocacy China and currently a visiting scholar at Yale Law School, had filed a lawsuit against conversion therapy and won the case.4 LGBT Rights Advocacy continued to file a dozen more cases and help those who needed representation in court.5 There were more movements scheduled to take place, but the lockdowns under China’s “zero-Covid” policy made it difficult for any events to be organized.6 Shanghai Pride canceled its annual pride event in 2020 after its organizers were harassed by the police.7 In July 2021, WeChat began shutting down any group chats that had formed to provide support and advocacy for LGBTQ+ people.8 Other social media content platforms deleted content relating to pride and the LGBTQ+ community. In this hostile environment, LGBT Rights Advocacy China shut down in November 2021.9 Covid-19 and China’s policies had an extensive negative impact on the LGBTQ+ community, making it difficult for its members to gather and have a voice.10 Lack of free speech is the main obstacle, with many worried about the consequences of speaking out and members of the community itself deciding to remain closeted for safety, LGBTQ+ topics continue to be thought of from a perspective of outlandishness and negativity by many in China. There isn’t a reliable way to mobilize or present dissenting opinions from the norm.

LGBTQ+ press in China has actually increased in positivity over recent years – the problem is that there is less press coverage occurring overall. Covid-19 has taken the spotlight in many Chinese news outlets, resulting in a 40% drop on LGBTQ+ related stories on publications.11 Even while positivity toward LGBTQ+ topics has increased, such as straying away from HIV or other STDs and moving toward highlighting the struggles of LGBTQ+ people in work environments, they still face discrimination on a regular basis.  Further, while they are advocating for equal treatment and kindness, there isn’t a reliable way for the public to become aware of these developments.12 The government also must grapple with pressing issues such as inflation and administration policies, resulting in LGBTQ+ policies being placed on the backburner.13 Censorship of LGBTQ+ content is also a sign that the government, while officially neutral, is leaning toward anti-LGBTQ sentiments.14 Leading social media and news platforms also don’t encourage diverse views which makes it difficult for progress to be made.

China’s culture, rooted in tradition, is another challenge for LGBTQ+ rights advocacy movements. The integration of many anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in everyday life through advertisements, societal expectations, and gender norms makes it inherently difficult for the LGBTQ+ community to be made publicly aware in a positive light. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore announced on August 21st that his plan to “protect the nation’s definition of marriage” excluded same-sex marriage.15 Same-sex relationships had been decriminalized, but there are no laws protecting them against discrimination.16 In addition to discrimination in the legal setting, the cautious attitude toward LGBTQ+ content in Singapore feeds further into the negativity surrounding it. The Walt Disney film “Lightyear” portrays a scene with two females kissing, resulting in an adults-only rating which demonstrates the perpetuating sentiment that anything challenging societal tradition is a negative influence.17 The restriction of LGBTQ+ topics makes it harder for people to show compassion toward members of said community. Furthermore, Confucianism in China frowns upon the possibility of having no descendants. The saying for this is “不孝有三,無後為大 (bùxiào yǒusān, wú hòu wéi dà).”18 Hesitation or lack of support toward LGBTQ+ identities don’t stem from outright hostility, but rather because it goes against the ideology that continuing a family is one of the most important responsibilities in life. These clashing values of traditional ideology and the open mindedness required to support LGBTQ+ people are thes primary reasons why it’s difficult for China to be accepting of them. 


Japan, in comparison, has shown more steady progress toward public understanding of the LGBTQ+ community. An online survey conducted in 2019 by professor Yasuharu Hidaka of Takarazuka University revealed that nearly 67% of its 10,700 participants in Japan felt that “compared with five years ago, diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity is better recognized by society.”19 Although discriminatory remarks still exist in workspaces and school environments, the survey does show improvement over time. This is in direct contrast with the diminishing press of China’s LGBTQ+ communities in recent years. Therefore, the extent of the influence of the public voice is an important factor that determines the velocity of changing societal norms.

One of the most important factors allowing LGBTQ+ communities in Japan to achieve more success is press freedom. The World Press Freedom Index ranking this year placed Japan at 71st and China at 175th out of 180 countries.20 The openness to new perspectives facilitates the normalization of different identities, which is highly important for historically marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ groups. In addition, 2022 saw the most women and LGBTQ+ candidates running in political elections: 181 and 4, respectively.21 Four doesn’t seem very high, but it does mark an improvement because it’s the highest number there’s ever been in one election. More surveys have found that around eight to ten percent of the Japanese population identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, but there is currently only one member in the upper house who openly identifies as such. Furthermore, surveys also indicate that most Japanese citizens are in favor of more representation of minority groups in politics and legalizing same-sex marriage, but the official regulations or laws have not been put into place.22 All of these instances demonstrate that while Japan is showing progress on a societal level thanks to its press freedom, the LGBTQ+ community still struggles with legal barriers and low representation in political matters.

A major legal setback for the LGBTQ+ community in Japan was a court ruling in June 2022 stating that it’s constitutional for same sex marriage to be restricted.23 This highlights two important ideas. First, there has been a lot of support and advocacy by the people to make this happen, which means that the setback was not a result of public opposition. Rather, the decision was met with disappointment from many LGBTQ+ activists and couples who filed lawsuits. Second, even though the people of Japan have advocated for more diversity in politics and fairer treatment of LGBTQ+ members, the societal pressure for change has yielded very slow legal results. Some cities like Ube in the Yamaguchi Prefecture introduced the concept of “marriage certificates” in response to the ruling. These certificates grant some rights to LGBTQ+ couples as if they were legally married, including the ability to get housing loans and apply for a mortgage.24 The legal benefits are not nearly as extensive as those that heterosexual couples receive in Japan, but these certificates have inspired companies to give members of the LGBTQ+ community support that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. It also resulted in more public awareness of the struggles that LGBTQ+ people face. 

There is still a lot of progress to be made in Japan of course. Many citizens who identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community still feel isolated in everyday life and worry about the reactions of their families and close friends. Moreover, candidates in government positions still don’t proportionally represent the LGBTQ+ population. However, it is good news that Japan is slowly inching toward a more open environment.25

“People Power” in Societal Progress

The difference in the strength of LGBTQ+ communities between China and Japan demonstrates an important concept: press freedom is crucial for societal development. China’s attempts to shut down gatherings is not just a reflection of the government’s opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, but also of the larger implications of a dictatorship. New ideas are shut down if they clash with tradition so it’s difficult for any new movements to be successful even if they might benefit the common good. On the other hand, Japan’s increased amount of press freedom has allowed the public to become more familiar with the LGBTQ+ community, resulting in relatively more support and understanding from its people over time.26 Japan has shown that an incremental approach is effective in bringing change and that differing opinions are necessary for improvement to happen. The findings from this article show that while the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is still ongoing, there is hope everywhere. With press freedom, incremental changes, and open minds, it’s possible for the LGBTQ+ community to receive the support and kindness they need. 


Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation:| Image sourced from Flickr

  1. Jason Shvili, “What Type of Government Does China Have?,” WorldAtlas, March 18, 2021, ↩︎
  2. Zong Zhang, “Yi Yang: Judicial Activist, Program Officer – LGBT Rights Advocacy, China,” Alturi, ↩︎
  3. Phoebe Zhang, “China’s LGBT community five times more likely to develop mental illness and consider suicide than general public, report finds,” South China Morning Post, June 25, 2021, ↩︎
  4. Michael Lavers, “Chinese activist continues fight for LGBTQ, intersex rights from U.S.,” Washington Blade, August 30, 2022,; Yale Law School, “Yanhui Peng,” ↩︎
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  16. Chen Lin, “Singapore will decriminalize sex between men, prime minister says,” Reuters, August 22, 2022, ↩︎
  17. Faris Mokhtar, “Singapore Debate on LGBTQ Rights Heats Up in Test for Leaders.” ↩︎
  18. UNDP, USAID, “Being LGBT in Asia: China Country Report,” United Nations Development Programme, 2014, ↩︎
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  20. “Asia-Pacific Absolute and Autocratic Control of Information,” Reporters Without Borders, 2022,
  21. Eduardo Martinez, Mariko Tamura, “FOCUS: Record women, LGBTQ election hopefuls run to shake up Japan politics,” Kyodo News, July 7, 2022, ↩︎
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  24. “Yamaguchi city of Ube ratifies rights for LGBTQ couples,” The Japan Times, November 29, 2021, ↩︎
  25. Ben Dooley, “Japan’s Support for Gay Marriage Is Soaring. But Can It Become Law?.” ↩︎
  26. Brian Wong, “What Asia’s LGBTQ+ Movement Can Learn From Japan,” Time Magazine, March 30, 2021, ↩︎