Shaunagh Connaire is a reporter for Channel 4’s foreign affairs series ‘Unreported World’. Here she tells ELLE about her newest report in to China’s gay shock therapy, which airs tomorrow night.
'I come from a place that embraces gay rights. This year when Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage by popular vote, I felt immensely proud. I felt emotional as I read the tweets, the headlines, and the text messages, from friends and family who were joining this movement. I felt like I was part of something monumental, even though I was watching from afar as a heterosexual person who never had to endure guilt or shame about who I chose to love. At that moment, in my eyes, the LGBT crusade was alive and well.
Fast forward one month and I was undercover in China, meeting the country’s leading LGBT activists whose situation was somewhat darker. I was making a documentary with my director Patrick Wells for Channel 4 Unreported World about clinics that offer gay conversion therapy, sometimes even electroshock therapy, as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.
John Shen is second in command of the largest gay rights group in China, the Beijing LGBT Centre. He and his colleagues are fighting to expose these clinics that use quack remedies to change a person’s sexual orientation. Its unmistakably distressing work on the surface but John’s struggle has many layers. Not only is his cause raising suspicion among the authorities that continually call unannounced to the LGBT Centre, John has yet to come out to his parents.
He’s just 22 years old and he’s chosen the path of most resistance. He’s selfless and cares deeply about the Centre’s survival, often at the expense of his own personal safety. He’s a whirlwind of wit, charm and intelligence and he makes me laugh even in the most testing of times. And there were many testing moments while making this documentary. We were surreptitiously filming in a country whose intelligence simply cannot be outmaneuvered. Early on in the shoot we learned that the authorities were aware of our presence in China and from then on we were forced to employ cloak and dagger techniques during each scene we captured. But John, who constantly endures this level of anxiety, persevered, as he believes in the greater good of what he and his colleagues are doing for the other 30 million gay people living in China.
We arrived in Beijing at a time when the authorities were cracking down on anyone who was seen to have a dissident voice. Human rights lawyers were being questioned and detained and according to the LGBT activists, the authorities were also monitoring their Centre. John and his colleagues were preparing for their main fundraising event of the year, The Gala, which had been shut down by the police two years previously. The mere existence of the Centre was in jeopardy and the stakes were high.
This was my first time making a film with activists and it threw up many new concerns. Was exposing these clinics to the world actually aiding his cause? As we left China we were told by a trusted source that we’d be detained at the airport and our footage confiscated. But we got out safely. We made it home. We had the opportunity to make this film.
Now I speak to John regularly, not as our star character but as my friend who has taught me that bravery is everything and it’s worth fighting for what we believe in.'
China’s Gay Shock Therapy will air on Channel 4 at 19.30 on 9th October.