A dozen leading figures from the Chinese gay and lesbian community will speak at The University of Manchester this week in the first event of its kind in the UK.

From 22 to 24 March, activists, academics, and filmmakers will share their experience with European counterparts to correct misconceptions about being gay in China.

Europe-China LGBT Exchange is organised by Dr William Schroeder from the University’s Centre for Chinese Studies.

Dr Schroeder said: “This event is about dispelling prejudices about LGBT life in China: it might be surprising to some that activists like these 12 people operate openly and rather effectively there.

“In fact LGBT communities thrive in many parts of the country, especially urban centres, but also rural areas too.”

Homosexuality in China was decriminalised in 1997 and ceased to be classified as a mental illness in 2001.

Conference organisers say that while Beijing and other big cities are home to an increasingly number of gay, bi and trans organisations and clubs, it is unusual for LGBT people to come out to their parents and employers.

Dr Schroeder, an anthropologist, is currently researching how the Chinese gay and transgender communities build up through recreational organisations.

He said: “People in China often imagine that places like the United States are gay paradises.

“But LGBT Westerners can suffer the threat of extreme violence as a result of their sexuality and authorities in some communities in the United States continue to actively persecute LGBT citizens.

“People in the West, on the other hand, imagine being gay in China is horribly dangerous or illegal.

“But LGBT people don’t face the kind of targeted moral condemnation that their American counterparts do, for example.”

In 2010, the Chinese government shut down the Mr Gay China pageant for apparently not following correct procedures.

The move reflects officialdom’s laissez-faire attitude to the gay community, as long as it stays broadly out of the public eye, says Dr Schroeder.

He added: “Pageants and parades that attract world attention are one thing. But inside China individuals and groups have long been working to create a vibrant scene and have been challenging conventions in their own way for decades.

“Many ordinary Chinese have an ambiguous attitude to gay people rather than outright hostility – though some still believe being gay is a perversion and a mental illness. But it’s most frequently seen as a social ‘mistake’.”

“Many Chinese lead a relatively open gay life – especially at the weekend when they take part in various clubs and recreational activities.

“But those same people are reticent towards telling their families and workmates: having a family and children is extremely important in Chinese culture, and ever more so as state-sponsored social security networks crumble.”

In a February report in the state-run China Daily, Professor Zhang Bei-chuan of Qingdao University estimated that 16 million women in the country were married to gays as a result of social pressures.

The event is open to the public and will be held in both Chinese and English via an interpreter. It is funded by the Ford Foundation, the British Inter-university Chinese Centre and Manchester’s CCS.

The event will feature Professor Lisa Rofel from the University of California, who will interview avante-garde film director Cui Zi’en from the Beijing Film Academy and Professor Li Yinhe from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Also present will be Wei Jiangang, commentator, filmmaker and producer of the “Queer Comrades” website, which pays homage to seminal UK series ‘Queer as Folk’, and Shitou, a Chinese lesbian actress and filmmaker.