HONG KONG — If the 2008 Olympic Games was Beijing’s coming-out party, last week it was finally Shanghai’s turn. The city of 20 million held the country’s first ever gay pride festival.

Shanghai Pride featured seven days of film screenings, plays and panel discussions capped, on June 13, by a blowout bash. There were drag shows, drumming and (symbolic) same-sex weddings. But there was no parade. Public gatherings are verboten, and organizers decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

The event was a victory for Shanghai activists and, they hope, a step toward gay rights in China. But it is not, as one observer put it, the great leap forward. The parade problem points to Beijing’s ambivalence toward the very notion of pride. “In today’s China you can be gay,” explained Bin Xu, a veteran LGBT campaigner. “But you can’t be political.”

Though references to same-sex pairings dot the Chinese literary cannon, the People’s Republic has taken a hard line on homosexuality. Sodomy was decriminalized in 1997, but it was not until 2001 that the Chinese Psychiatric Association ruled homosexuality was not, in fact, a mental illness. For the majority of China’s estimated 30 million homosexuals, discrimination, isolation and stigma persist.

Still, many were surprised that a pride parade was considered politically sensitive in China’s cosmopolitan commercial capital. Shanghai, like many Chinese cities, has a vast and vibrant gay scene that operates with little interference from Beijing. The government’s hands-off approach is sometimes called the Triple No Policy: no approval, no disapproval, no promotion. It is the Chinese equivalent of "don’t ask don’t tell," an opaque tactic that critics claim leaves both activists and ordinary people caught in an invisible web of rules that dictate when and how you can and — or can’t — be gay.

Xu, who founded Common Language, a grassroots gay rights group, has been caught in that web for the better part of 10 years. She calls the difference between the China of the late 1990s and the China of today “the difference between sky and earth” for gays and lesbians. But, she said, sometimes the old rules, or no rules, apply.

Shanghai Pride’s predecessors certainly found this true. In 2005, a group led by outspoken Chinese filmmaker Cui Zi'en tried, unsuccessfully, to organize a gay rights festival in Beijing. The organizers were trailed by police and prospective venues were repeatedly shut down. The police often cited fire code violations, or licensing problems. “No matter where we moved,” Xu said, “they always found some problem.”

This type of bureaucratic badgering is not limited to Beijing. In 2006, students at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University formed the Queer Study Group, an informal alliance of people interested in gay rights and gender studies. It was, according to Professor Song Sufeng, the first LGBT student group in China and it initially operated with relative ease. That changed when the group caught the attention of the press. When the students tried to re-register the club, they were told their status had been suspended awaiting departmental sponsorship. They’re waiting still.

And so it is with Shanghai Pride. The event, carefully scheduled to avoid censure, started without a hitch, bolstered, to everyone’s surprise, by praise from China Daily, a state-run newspaper. The paper called the event “a good showcase of the country's social progress.” But by mid-week, somebody got nervous. Police showed up at a literary event and shut down two film screenings and a play. The organizers rescheduled the events and moved forward frustrated, but unfazed.

It is this resilience that gives advocates and academics hope. Being gay in China means feeling your way through the web of rules, creating space where there is none. Where the Tiananmen generation took to the streets, today’s activists use art and online organizing, bypassing Beijing wherever possible.

Shanghai Pride, for instance, took root on a listserv called ShanghaiLGBT, one of several virtual networks that connects Shanghai’s gay communities. There are lists, blogs, social networks and a slew of dating sites. Information spreads via art, too. This week Beijing hosts an exhibit called “Difference. Gender,” a collection of work that explores gender diversity. It, like Shanghai Pride, is being called the first of its kind.

Demand for news from, and about, China’s LBGT communities has never been stronger, said Stuart Koe, chief executive of Fridae, a gay media site with 5 million registered users and an estimated 60 million page views per month. Koe and his team launched a Chinese-language section two years ago. It is now the fastest growing part of the site.

Ben Zhang, co-founder of Gayographic, an irreverent gay culture blog, is similarly content to take it to the web, not the street. A Tianjin native, Zhang grew up watching state television and he associates parades with propaganda, not progress. He’s inspired by online activism and optimistic about gains made toward gay rights. “It’s time to celebrate,” he said.

And celebrate he did. With help from his boyfriend, Ryan Dutcher, Zhang rallied a group of about 20 people to fly to Shanghai for pride weekend. He wants to take the festival north next year. The first-ever Beijing Pride would be another small step, Zhang said. And with every step, he’s proud.

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