* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Social and family pressures make it difficult for lesbians and gays to come out in China, but the Internet has enabled them to meet online, and cafes like ROOMS mean they can get together in person
Video: Shanghai café helps fight homophobia
SHANGHAI - The coffee shop on the second floor of a large building in central Shanghai looks ordinary enough, but in recent months it has played an increasingly important role in the discreet struggle for gender and sexual equality in China.
Xiang Qi and Xiao Yan, two women in their thirties, opened ROOMS café in July. As the founder of Shanghai's first and only lesbian NGO, Shanghai NvAi (Women’s Love), Xiang Qi had the idea of using the coffee shop to host events promoting LGBT rights - away from prying eyes.
Homosexuality has been legal in mainland China since 1997, when the national penal code was revised. However, no civil rights law exists to address discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
It is still uncommon for gays and lesbians to come out in China, where the pressure from family, friends, colleagues and peers to conform remains strong.
When customers ask the cafe owners why there are so many books dealing with LGBT issues on display, Xiao Yan tells them: "LGBT is a part of gender equality, so are women's rights. This space is designed to promote gender equality."
Xiang Qi explained that she didn't want ROOMS to be a cliquey space just for lesbians. "I hope all women and men can find a sense of equality here," she told me.
The inspiration for ROOMS came from Fembooks, a bookshop and salon focusing on women's rights in Taipei, which Xiang Qi and Xiao Yan had visited. "We dreamed of opening a coffee shop along the same lines in Shanghai," Xiang Qi said.
For Xiang Qi, who founded NvAi in 2005, the Internet was a lifeline. She ran a website for lesbians for more than five years. "I discovered my identity as a lesbian online. In the real world, I found it was hard to get to know people like me," she said.
The website bridged the gap between the real and virtual worlds, helping thousands of lesbians in China to express themselves. NvAi, which is run by volunteers, was later set up for the same reason.
"When we are together, we can share our life stories. This way, more people can gain confidence and feel comfortable about who they are," Xiang Qi said.
With ROOMS, Xiang Qi and her NvAi volunteers finally have a base. NvAi's events are posted online and are open to the public. However, many young women worry about being seen there by colleagues or friends.
"It is reality that keeps them in the closet," Xiang Qi said. "Tradition, education and public opinion influence everyone in this society, especially the older generations. It is extremely hard for them to understand homosexuality."
"In mainland China, in big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, women are still oppressed. We are told to get married to men. If we don't get married before a certain age, we are called 'leftover women'. These are all forms of discrimination."
"I am afraid our society still treats women unfairly and hostilely," Xiang Qi said.