By WILLIAM FOREMAN, Associated Press
GUANGZHOU, China -- When the police descend on People's Park and shoo away the gay men gathered there, the men usually scatter to avoid trouble. But recently, about 50 or so confronted five officers who began a sweep and finally forced a police retreat after a heated but nonviolent standoff.
"I told them they might not like us, but they can't stop us from coming here," said AIDS activist Xiao Mu, who was handing out condoms and pamphlets about safe sex when the police arrived on Aug. 25. "We have a right to be in the park."
Though mostly ignored by state-run media, news of the incident in the southern city of Guangzhou - also known as Canton - spread quickly on the Internet and became a hot topic in gay chat forums nationwide. Some in China's gay community see it as a sign of a new sense of empowerment and a burgeoning awareness of their rights.
Members of the community have had minor confrontations with the authorities before in other cities. But usually the disputes play out in a low-key way, without much resistance to sweeps, said Lu Jun, founder of a Beijing-based group that fights discrimination against people with hepatitis B.
"I've never heard of something like this happening anywhere else," Lu said about the Guangzhou incident. "I think what happened marks great progress for homosexuals."
Gay activist Dao Dao in Shanghai also applauded those in Guangzhou for standing up for their rights. But he said he doubted it was the right long-term strategy. He favors striving for wider acceptance by being model citizens, rather than being outspoken and confrontational.
"We don't do any harm to the society. I think that's the best way to show all the people that we are good people and nothing different," said Dao Dao, who works in finance and also helps organize gay parties, sporting events and other activities.
Gay rights have come a long way since the years just after the 1949 communist revolution when homosexuality was considered a disease from the decadent West and feudal societies, and gay people were persecuted. China waited until 1997 to decriminalize sodomy. Homosexuality was finally removed from the official list of mental disorders in 2001. But still, there are no widely accepted estimates of the number of gay people in China.
This year has already been an eventful one for gay rights. In June, the first gay pride festival was held in Shanghai, the nation's commercial capital. Later in the month, the five-day Beijing Queer Film Festival was held - an event that police blocked in 2001 and 2005.
But as those cities showed signs of being more tolerant, Guangzhou authorities were starting to crack down in People's Park - a shady oasis of trees and gazebos in the middle of the muggy, traffic-congested city. The park is popular with youngsters who play badminton or retirees practicing their ballroom-dancing moves to stereos blasting out tunes like "Sukiyaki," the Japanese ballad that became a hit in the U.S. in the 1960s.
For years, the park has also been a favorite hangout for gay men, especially among the young or working-class who can't afford the bars and restaurants around town that cater to the community. The men - many dressed in tank tops and tight jeans - stroll around the park or sit together on a long line of stone benches. Nearby is a public restroom, where some men have sex - a source of much of the friction with the police.
On Aug, 25, the police moved in. "They told us, 'You just leave and don't come back. This is People's Park, not Homosexual Park,'" said Xiao, the AIDS activist, who is a short and thin and wears large black-framed glasses. "That made me extremely mad. He was saying gays aren't human."
Xiao said several men quietly walked away, but he stood his ground and people gathered around as he argued with police. Some who left wandered back after a few minutes, and Xiao estimated the crowd swelled to about 100 people, including several heterosexual passers-by who supported him.
The police declined to be interviewed. An officer at the front desk of the neighborhood's main police station grew agitated when asked about the incident, and with a loud voice he ordered an Associated Press reporter to leave the station.
A park policeman, who declined to give his name because he's not authorized to speak to the media, denied the police were unfair or discriminating against gays.
"The problem is that they do things in the public bathroom. Some of them will grope each other on the park benches," the policeman said. "People see them doing these things and it makes them feel uncomfortable. Then they call the police."
The officer added that those who have been asked to leave the park or have been taken to the station for questioning are repeat offenders who constantly cause trouble.
But gay activist Ah Qiang disagrees with the police. He said in March police started rounding up random groups of men in the park. They were marched to the police station where they would be forced to write a statement about their activities before being released without being charged, he said.
Police often called the men "gay lao" or "ji lao" - a pejorative term in the local Cantonese dialect, he said.
However, the activist acknowledged that some people do misbehave in public. But he added, "The police should deal with individual cases. They shouldn't punish a whole group of people."
There's a deep division within the gay community about who is to blame.
Shi Heng, a gay hotel worker who hangs out at the park, found himself in the middle of a fierce debate with younger men during a recent afternoon when he insisted that the cause of the trouble is the men who have sex in the restrooms.
"People are being too crude. We simply can't behave like this in a public place," said the 47-year-old man.
But another man in his 20s disagreed with Shi and said young men like him had few options.
"We can't afford to rent a room, and many of us live with our parents," said the man, who declined to be named because he feared it would cause trouble at home and work. "Where are we supposed to have sex?"
Caption: In this photo taken Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009, Shi Heng, 47, a gay hotel worker, sits on a bench waiting to meet other men at the People's Park in Guangzhou in southern China's Guangdong province, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009. William Foreman / AP Photo