MSW Student Advocates for LGBTQ Communities in the US and China - University of Houston
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MSW Student Advocates for LGBTQ Communities in the US and China


May 2, 2021

(HOUSTON, TX) - International MSW Student Joe Zhao recently participated in an online LGBTQ Policy Debrief discussion hosted by NASW-TX as part of Social Work Advocacy Week.

Originally hailing from China, Joe has made tremendous efforts advocating for LGBTQ communities on both sides of the Pacific and has raised awareness of the impact of harmful policies aimed at those within the community.

We asked Joe about the unique challenges faced by those advocating for LGBTQ communities in China and how being a recipient of a GCSW scholarship has impacted his future career in social work.


Name: Joe Zhao
Graduation from the GCSW: 
May 2021

What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced when advocating for LBGTQ rights in China?

When advocating for LGBTQ rights in China, one of the biggest challenges is the censorship that works to silence voices and erase the existence of the LGBTQ community, especially in social media. For many grassroots organizations and movement leaders, social media has been an effective advocacy tool to connect with community members for organizing events and educating the public about LGBTQ issues. However, in recent years, the State government has announced several cybersecurity laws that have led to many social media platforms banning LGBTQ-related content. Many people, including myself, hesitate to do everything we would like to do, including openly speaking our minds; however, everyone is aware that the State monitors all activities. As a result of this, their voices could be censored and they could end up being made targets by the State.

Another challenge that exists is the constant attempt by the State to delegitimize the LGBTQ movement in China. The government perceives the LGBTQ movement in China as part of the western democratization process. When it comes to actions related to promoting this process, they are carefully examined and monitored. Also, the LGBTQ movement is currently not recognized by the law and is actively discouraged, which means that any related activities, including fundraising, are illegal. When doing advocacy work, I need to carefully analyze what actions are higher risks and less effective but can fly under the radar. Some of my friends have been interrogated and investigated for organizing unauthorized events, so I am constantly aware that I need to protect myself and others.

Are there any specific skills or ideas you have learned while at the GCSW that have helped you advocate for LGBTQ rights here in the USA and China?

At the GCSW, I have learned to pen Op-Ed pieces to address social justice issues. It has been beneficial for my advocacy work because it has been one of the most effective avenues to magnify the voices of the LGBTQ community and raise awareness to various audiences and essential policymakers.

The GCSW’s emphasis on political social work has enriched my understanding of analyzing political systems and structures. Here at the CGSW, I have developed the knowledge of identifying decision-makers or which level of the government body to influence. In this way, I can enlighten those within power structures to make better decisions to help us achieve a more just society.

How has being a recipient of a GCSW scholarship impacted your ability to pursue graduate studies?

I cannot express how grateful I am to have received a GCSW scholarship during my MSW studies. As a first-generation college graduate growing up in a working-class family in China, coming to the U.S. to pursue a Master’s degree was not an easy process for me. The GCSW scholarship that I received supported me financially to continue with my studies and start the career I have always wanted. The GCSW scholarship has empowered me to constantly give back to my communities and has given me the confidence to get involved in as many meaningful activities as possible.

What was the experience like participating in the LGBTQ Policy Debrief as part of NASW-TX’s SWAD Week where you presented on how U.S. and Chinese policies towards LGBTQ people are similar and different?

I was excited and nervous about sharing my observations on policies that affect LGBTQ people in these two countries in the debrief session. On the one hand, it was a valuable process to reflect on what makes them different and similar, how, and why. And on the other hand, it was challenging to try and summarize the policies aimed at disenfranchising LGBTQ communities in these two countries in broad strokes.

One example that surprised me was the subject of LGBTQ employment protections. Unlike in states like California, in Texas, LGBTQ people still do not have employment and healthcare protection laws on the books. Similarly, the Wuhan LGBT Center has greater autonomy to do community work without being sanctioned by the local government than some LGBT organizations in other cities or regions in China. So, despite the differences between the two political systems, we still need to focus on what the local cultures are and how they play out in our lives.