A Chinese social media platform is making it hard to use a popular LGBTQ hashtag

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Over this past weekend, many of China’s queer activists were dismayed to find that the #les “super topic”— a special hashtag used to build online communities by creating specialized “megathreads”—appeared to have been censored on widely used social media platform Weibo.

Users noticed the censorship after receiving error messages when attempting to post in the super topic, as did members of the LGBTQ community when searching for the thread to read prior posts and glean information.

The topic has 140,000 followers—not huge by the standards of China’s online sphere, but nevertheless a precious resource for many in a community that faces regular censorship. Around the same time, a same-sex relations discussion forum with a similar name on film-review site Douban also appeared to have been censored, but as of this week users are able to post to the forum again.

The super topic can still be found on search engine Baidu, and as the week progressed it was occasionally accessible on Weibo, though access on the latter remains spotty and largely inconsistent, with users only being able to view and post in the discussion sporadically.

To protest the apparent censorship, topic participants and allies shared selfies of themselves with their mouths covered with a cross of black tape (in Chinese) using new hashtags like “i am les” and “les.” The latter “les” hashtag had attracted 550 million views on Weibo as of Wednesday night (April 17) Beijing time. Chinese feminist activist Lü Pin, who lives in the US, was among those who tweeted about the protest.

Yanzi Peng, director of the LGBT Rights Advocacy China nonprofit in Guangzhou, says many Chinese lesbians—who face both homophobia and sexism—use #les to “talk about their daily lives, looking for information and friends.”

“Imagine someone who begins to identify as a lesbian, and needs help from internet. They can’t find the information anymore from #les. That’s why it’s important. It’s not just a hashtag that was deleted. It’s a whole topic,” said Peng.

The nixing of #les comes almost exactly a year after Weibo higher-ups decided to investigate LGBTQ subject matter on the platform, as part of what they called a “clean-up” of unsavory content—but then backtracked on the effort in the face of an outcry. Shanghai Pride organizer Darick (an out Chinese lesbian who asked not to give her full name because of the sensitivity of this topic) says: “After many complaints Weibo backtracked last year, and now they turn around and delete #les. This is unacceptable. It can happen to any community, which is why we have to stand together.”

And these are by no means the only media blows that China’s LGBTQ community has been dealt as of late. China censored gay scenes (paywall) from the hit Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody when it came to cinemas in March, after censoring the words “gay man” from Rami Malek’s speech when he accepted the Oscar for best picture in February.

Although homosexuality has not been illegal in China since 1997, and was officially declassified as a mental disorder in 2001, stigma still persists. In fact, the “Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders” list still includes vague references to “sexual orientation disorder” in connection with same-sex relations, prompting a handful of artists to mount a protest in eight major Chinese cities inspired by the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri earlier this year.

The censorship shows little sign of ceasing. For instance: China’s National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications declared last week (in Chinese) that online content falling outside of “correct marriage views and ethics” will be deleted.

Nor can China’s LGBTQ community count on the courts for support. Shanghai native Fan Chunlin filed a case in 2018 against the China Netcasting Service Association (CNSA), a government-backed outfit that monitors digital media, after it labeled homosexuality an “abnormal sexual behavior” and ordered queer content be banned from the Chinese internet in 2017. A Beijiing court ruled against him later that year, and Fan lost his appeal of that decision last week.