Tea Leaf Nation

After SCOTUS Ruling, China’s Twitter Is Trending Rainbows Too

Same-sex marriage isn’t legal in China, but many there wish it were.

People march in Causeway Bay district during the Gay Pride Parade in Hong Kong on November 8 2014.  The atmosphere was jovial as nearly two thousand people, some wrapped in rainbow-coloured flags and some dressed in drag took to the streets in Hong Kong's Gay Pride parade    AFP PHOTO / XAUME OLLEROS        (Photo credit should read XAUME OLLEROS/AFP/Getty Images)
People march in Causeway Bay district during the Gay Pride Parade in Hong Kong on November 8 2014. The atmosphere was jovial as nearly two thousand people, some wrapped in rainbow-coloured flags and some dressed in drag took to the streets in Hong Kong's Gay Pride parade AFP PHOTO / XAUME OLLEROS (Photo credit should read XAUME OLLEROS/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court released a widely anticipated ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, unleashing a deluge of triumph from marriage equality supporters and criticism from its detractors.

In China, where LGBT issues are increasingly prominent, media and social media soon lit up with news of the historic legal decision — even though it came out at 10 pm local time. Within 20 minutes, it headlined major Chinese news site NetEase, and within two hours, state media outlets Global Times and People’s Daily had posted the announcement and thousands of mostly celebratory comments poured in on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform.

“Support and blessings!” one young man in the relatively gay-friendly provincial capital Nanjing wrote in a popular comment. “If you love someone, you love someone,” wrote another. “It has nothing to do with gender.” A self-declared Katy Perry fan posted a string of rainbow emoticons with the comment, “Today is such a wonderful day” and the English hashtag “Love Wins.”

Others called for China to adopt similar measures. “If China also allowed this,” wrote one young woman whose Weibo profile was full of photos and posts about her love for her girlfriend, “we would have wed long ago.” Another simply wrote, “Hurry up, China!”

Zhou Dan, a well-known lawyer and LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist in Shanghai, had clearly been awaiting the decision all day. In the hours before the ruling was released, he wrote a series of Weibo posts tracing the chronology of marriage equality in the United States, from the court case abolishing the Texas anti-sodomy law in 2003, to the legalization of same-sex unions in New York in 2011, to the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.

Support for the ruling extended to diverse segments of Chinese society. One self-styled fan club of Chinese President Xi Jinping called the “Learn from Xi Fan Group,” with more than 2.7 million followers on its Weibo account, held an informal poll one hour after the Supreme Court ruling was announced, asking Weibo users to state whether they supported or opposed same-sex unions. Within hours, the post garnered more than 4,300 responses; the most popular comments were near unanimous in their enthusiastic support for equal marriage rights. “I am heterosexual, and I’m also a Christian,” read the most up-voted comment, “but I support matrimony that is based on love.” The Weibo profile of the comment’s author, a woman in Beijing with the English name Tiffany, featured a well-known Bible verse that seemed to speak to the occasion: “Love is patient, love is kind.” Another user evinced amazement that a Weibo group dedicated to admiring Xi — a president whose time in office has seen a marked crackdown on civil society, media freedoms, and even student feminist movements — would post such a poll calling for open discussion of a sensitive social issue. “Times really are changing!” the user remarked.

And indeed they are, in China as well as the United States. Though Chinese society remains conservative in many respects, LGBT-related issues have recently gained wider recognition. Homosexuality was removed from the country’s official list of mental illnesses in 2001. While information about China’s growing AIDS epidemic was suppressed in the 1990s and early 2000s, the president’s own wife, Peng Liyuan, is now a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS and has become a vocal advocate in fighting discrimination against AIDS patients.

And China’s young web-savvy generation is both more accepting of same-sex attraction and more inclined to support gay marriage. In September 2014, when a British diplomat in China married his boyfriend at the home of the British ambassador to China — sovereign British territory where such nuptials are legal — Weibo exploded with an outpouring of support for the couple. In March, a short film depicting one young Chinese man’s coming out story went viral on the Chinese web, receiving 127 million views in a single weekend. And while local authorities have cracked down on nonprofit organizations and grassroots movements in the past two years, LGBT-related organizations seem to have mostly escaped the pressure.

But change is gradual, and some web users expressed ambivalence about homosexuality, while others remained hostile. “I do not oppose it, I will not interfere, and I do not discriminate,” wrote one man in Wuhan. “But speaking as an individual, I am unable to accept it.” (Some users expressed concern about the “continuation of the species,” some deemed homosexual behavior “disgusting,” and others invoked terms that won’t be reprinted here, though these comments received little support.)

And other challenges remain. In Chinese society, where parental pressure to marry and have a child to carry on the family name can be intense, it is common for gay men and women to enter into “sham marriages” in which they marry a member of the opposite sex in order to satisfy social expectations. While such marriages can help alleviate social pressure, people are forced to live a charade. And the marriages can end in heartbreak in cases when spouses, often female, did not know that their partners were gay — and only find out later. After the U.S. Supreme Court verdict’s release, some Chinese web users invoked this phenomenon in the online debate over marriage equality. Same-sex marriage encourages gay people to “bravely be themselves,” wrote one male user in a popular comment, and to “no longer enter into sham marriages with women they don’t love.” But others argued that simply legalizing same-sex unions wouldn’t solve the problem. “People in fake marriages won’t come out of the closet just because gay marriage is legalized,” wrote one female user who identified herself as bisexual. “First you have to change people’s thinking.”

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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