By Art Martori, March 2017 Issue.
When I finally catch up with Andrew Shainker, the 30-year-old is relaxing on the patio of The Main Ingredient in midtown Phoenix, after a lengthy trip to Iceland with a stop in Denmark.
It’s my first time meeting Shainker face to face, despite numerous emails sent during layovers at airport terminals and a slew of missed phone calls. In his lifetime, Shainker has visited about 40 foreign countries and plans hit the prestigious “100-before-40” benchmark.
Shainker is articulate and sincere, and tends to slip in humorous asides now and again – evidence of his experience as a 5th and 6th grade teacher, with some nights dedicated to performing standup comedy.
He once described himself as a “multipotentialite,” or someone who has many creative outlets but lacks that one true calling which focuses all their energy.
Perhaps it was this, paired with an insatiable wanderlust, that led to the founding of OpenDoors AZ in December of 2010, a group that exists on the social network meetup.com. It offers LGBTQ individuals a way to connect through activities more meaningful than pickups in the bar scene.
Andrew Shainker in Costa Rica. Photos courtesy of OpenDoors.
“My introduction to the LGBT[Q] community was through the bar scene at the age of 18. I remember I would see the same people, know their names but not know really anything significant about their lives,” Shainker said. “I wanted a group where men and women could talk about what it really means to be gay. The fears we face. Our hopes and dreams, and most importantly how do we form meaningful connections that go further than a business networking opportunity or a one night stand.”
While Shainker admits the Arizona chapter has seen “limited success” – if you call more than 4,000 likes on Facebook, more than 1,300 members on meetup.com and 300 events a year limited – he’s proud to have established thriving groups in the Chinese cities of Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. While his stateside efforts are more of a social endeavor, Shainker described how the Chinese gatherings serve as profound outlets in a country where LGBTQ rights and acceptance are limited compared with the United States.
Living Your Own Life
In China, LGBTQ people face challenges the U.S. community has already overcome or never experienced at all. For example, in the People’s Republic of China marriage has been legally defined as a union between a man in a woman since 1980. In other areas, such as Hong Kong, there are limited protections, but there still hasn’t been an outright acceptance like the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In fact, as recently as 2016 there have been reports of coercive conversion therapy – such as a claim by a gay man in Henan province who said a hospital forcibly administered medicine and other treatments in order to “cure” his homosexuality.
OpenDoors Beijing members celebrate the group’s one year anniversary.
Still, many LGBTQ people in China say the hardest thing is facing their families, as there is always the hope that men and women will produce offspring in order to carry on the family line.
Meanwhile, the country’s infamous family-planning policy only exacerbates stigma, as it raises expectations for children that only couples are permitted to have.
For Raymond Phang, a 28-year-old marketing professional and director of Shanghai PRIDE, coming out to his family was the most difficult part of his LGBTQ experience, even though his native Shanghai is a friendlier city in that regard.
“In a typical Chinese family, parents would want their child to have kids, and if the child is LGBT[Q], it often draws attention of being abnormal, unfit,” Phang explained. “Shanghai in general is very vibrant and acceptive compared to other cities in China. It is an international city which brings together people from all walks of life. There are LGBTQ bars and lounges, also clubs. Many places are LGBTQ friendly, too.
“But many of my friends don’t have this privilege. [They face] pressure from family, discrimination at the workplace and challenges in self-acceptance.”
Joshua Euten, an American 34-year-old athletic trainer at an international school in Shanghai, said that in the short time he’s been an expatriate he’s witnessed the enormous family pressure that children in China face.
“There is such a cultural issue with Chinese individuals being true to themselves. They are taught at an early age, and then throughout growing up, that their parents make the decisions for the kids, so there is no real individuality allowed,” Euten explained. “Kids must do what their parents chose for them and they must take care of their parents later in life. I find this to be very straining for many of my Chinese friends who are in the LGBT[Q] community. It hurts my heart to see that they can’t live their own life because they feel an obligation to do what their family says they must.”
OpenDoors AZ members at a meetup in Phoenix.
Believing in Greatness
Shainker describes OpenDoors AZ as more of a social group, but it does serve a higher purpose. Recently, he started asking members to pay $20 annually to participate, with proceeds going to support cohorts in China.
It’s been rough, he admited. For starters, Shainker said, he’s already spent several thousand dollars of his own teachers’ salary to promote the Open Doors groups. Meetup.com also charges a $10 monthly fee for each group, further raising overhead. So far, Shainker said, he’s raised a total of some $1,200 to support Open Doors in China.
“Paying $20 a year for a group in Arizona that helps a group in China feels like a scam,” Shainker said, imagining how his potential new members might see the group. “This idea people are paying for friendship has not set well with many. We feel so comfortable being on a Grindr screen, but this idea of stepping out of our comfort zone and meeting a bunch of strangers is intimidating and takes great courage.”
Still, Shainker remains undeterred. His Chinese groups each have hundreds of members, he said, and continue to grow. In fact, he’s even begun to delegate some responsibility to members living in China, while he acts in more of an executive role from the U.S. (or whichever country, depending on the day).
“I’d like to really spend my energy in the coming year focusing on strategic planning and allowing others to step up as organizers of our weekly events,” he explained. “That leadership role of organizing events has given many – including myself – the confidence to step up in the business world, to start new projects and to believe in greatness.
“I know in my gut that to really make OpenDoors an international name takes funding, resources and great risk,” Shainker said. “I won’t know if I have made the right decision until it’s all over.”
For more information on OpenDoors AZ, visit meetup.com/opendoorsaz or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about the OpenDoors global community, visit opendoorscommunity.com.