It’s Still (Just About) OK to Be Gay in China

Online protest has scored a solid win for LGBT rights — for now.

By James Palmer, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Runners of the Shanghai Pride Run make signs with their fingers while wearing rainbow shoelaces at the start of the race in Shanghai on June 18, 2016.
(Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
Runners of the Shanghai Pride Run make signs with their fingers while wearing rainbow shoelaces at the start of the race in Shanghai on June 18, 2016. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

The Chinese social media service Weibo rapidly reversed its position Monday after issuing a ban on gay content as part of a “cleanup” campaign Friday. A massive outpouring of online protest by LGBT users and their allies prompted a public disavowal of the campaign, which had lumped homosexuality together with violence and pornography as “undesirable content.”

The change in policy was a rare win after years of tightening repression on online speech, beginning with a crackdown in 2012 on Weibo, then a thriving service that was the main vehicle for discussion, dissent, and exposure of corruption in China. That stifled the platform and forced many users to switch to more private platforms such as WeChat, which in turn became the target of increasingly harsh restraints. But the reason for the victory is simple: The government doesn’t particularly care about the issue, and the public does.

Official homophobia in China has never reached the level of countries such as Russia or Uganda, where gay men are demonized as an alien, predatory threat. Since China ended the prosecution of gay men under hooliganism laws, the authorities have been uncomfortable with LGBT groups but not violently hostile to them. “For generations, there’s been no active Chinese state pushback against LGBT rights,” says Adam Robbins, a Shenzhen-based journalist and veteran of the equal marriage campaign in the United States. “Instead, the policy was ‘don’t encourage, don’t discourage, don’t promote.’” Chinese state propaganda barely, if ever, mentions LGBT issues.

That’s in keeping with the relative lack of virulent homophobia in China’s great literary and artistic works compared with Europe’s. Dream of the Red Chamber, considered the country’s greatest fictional work, is full of same-sex relationships. “What’s it to you if we fuck asses! It’s not like we fucked your dad,” one character aggressively retorts in the novel. Jesuit missionaries in China were shocked by the casual attitude toward sex with servants and the abundance of male prostitution.

Attitudes toward LGBT rights haven’t been shaped by propaganda but by foreign media, particularly Western TV and Japanese manga, and a growing, increasingly open LGBT community at home. On other issues, such as human rights in general or the oppression of minorities, there’s a powerful counternarrative from the authorities. “Straight allies all have LGBT friends, and they know in their hearts people are all the same and we are all human beings. That’s been particularly visible in my WeChat Moments [a popular social media feed],” says Martin Yang, the organizer of the China AIDS Walk.

LGBT people have become increasingly visible over the last decade and a half. In my first year in China in 2003, as groups of Chinese students prepared to go to Australia, they were fascinated by LGBT issues but largely ignorant. “What if a lesbian likes me and I say no?” one girl asked. “Will she attack me?” Today, young women are highly protective of LGBT rights. “Gay men are safe,” Robbins says. “With all the social anxieties around getting married and having kids, it’s a generation ripe to embrace homosexuality.”

So why was the crackdown threatened in the first place? Chinese media restraints are a mixture of direct orders from above and, increasingly, preemptive restraints by companies trying to show the correct level of deference toward the government. The danger of not showing the right attitude was on display last week when one popular social media firm was forced to offer a tearful apology for not curating its online content strictly enough, promising to hire thousands more censors and properly respect “socialist core values.”

The Chinese Communist Party is also deeply suspicious of any nonparty organization, leaving LGBT leaders such as Geng Le, the founder of the dating app Blued, walking a delicate line in calling for community without activism. LGBT groups have been increasingly monitored by the police and public events canceled or forced to relocate to less prominent locations.

Weibo, however, seems to have jumped the gun, following the lead of government-issued regulations over the last two years that have taken a tougher line on the depiction of LGBT life. Last June saw a set of broad and unpopular restrictions from the regulatory authorities, which were then poorly enforced and prompted visible pushback from other parts of the system, such as the party’s Youth League. This time, Weibo was blindsided a couple of days after the announcement by an unexpectedly pro-LGBT People’s Daily editorial — the official, and highly controlled, party newspaper. (When it comes to allies within the system, the very high proportion of gay men among Chinese reporters probably helps.)

The strength of the reaction may also be down to increasing frustration and anger against tightening censorship. “The pushback against the June restrictions didn’t achieve anything,” says one activist, preferring anonymity. “But it left people ready to fight the next time.” At a time when there is less and less freedom to speak out, it was refreshing. “When the posts weren’t deleted, and when the People’s Daily editorial came out, people felt even more confident in challenging the company directly,” a Beijing resident says.

Weibo, however, isn’t the Chinese government; the reaction to any such future challenge to the authorities, instead of a single company, is likely to be much stronger. (In the same way, the country’s nascent #MeToo movement has been able to challenge abusive university professors — but any attempt to raise the rampant sexual abuse by party officials is instantly shut down.)

Another factor may threaten the authorities’ tentative tolerance in the years to come: the growing natalism of a country that sees its demographic future threatened by a lack of babies. With official groups calling for a return to traditional gender roles, the government’s attitude toward LGBT rights could shift painfully — whether the public likes it or not.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer