It’s actually OK to be gay in China online—just don’t ask for equal rights IRL

Out and about.
Out and about.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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There are more LGBTQ people living in China than the entire population of France—some 65 million individuals (link in Chinese), according to estimates. These people are not as marginalized as many Westerners may think: Gay marriage may not be legalized and gay citizens not granted some of the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts, but their community is still thriving regardless—and I should know, because I’m part of it.

What is revolutionizing and centralizing this community is the same phenomenon that has united ostracized peoples the world over: the internet.

In spite of China’s digital censorship laws, the extent to which LGBTQ-related topics can be talked about online is virtually limitless (all links in Chinese unless otherwise noted). As long as this community doesn’t disrupt the government’s status quo offline through public protests and disruptive gatherings, they are rarely interfered with or discouraged by Chinese officials; in fact, they’re flourishing.

Popular Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) accounts about gay people, such as “My affairs with my gay partner,” have amassed millions of followers. Internet socialites who are open about their sexuality have gained popularity and have capitalized on their fame by starting their own lines of clothing. Popular gay-dating app Blued has also reached an astronomical scale of more than 22 millions users, usurping Grindr to become the most-used dating app for gays worldwide. Think pieces, LGBTQ movies, erotic films and images, and even catty commentaries of niche gay culture can all be found in the rapid currents of China’s internet.

The birth of Blued

One of the earliest and most popular websites for the gay community was—and still is—Light Blue, the predecessor of the popular app Blued. Founder Geng Le realized that he liked men around 2000, back when homosexuality was still defined as a mental disease (link in English) in China. Seeking more information to extend his understanding of his newfound sexuality, Geng found a book titled Beijing Story—a love story with genuine, undemonized gay characters—in the most cryptic rims of the internet. He wept as he read the book online. For the longest time he thought he was alone, an abnormity, but now “I realized that there were people just like me,” he says.

Geng felt compelled to make that voice easier to find for others. At the time, he was working at his local police station, and he didn’t have a clue about how to make a website. So Geng bought a coding book, The Oriental King of Web-making, and spent around RMB $10,000 (USD$2,000 dollars) on then-cutting-edge Intel 486 to start crafting Light Blue. Occupied by both of his jobs, he worked 17 hours almost everyday for six years. The website launched in 2000 and had news, chat sections, and published LGBTQ-related films and novels.

By 2006, Light Blue users numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and a team of like-minded people joined Geng on his mission to provide for China’s LGBTQ community. Around the same time, the Chinese government started to exert tighter control over the internet and began cracking down on websites with “immoral” content. Light Blue was one of the websites that was regularly forced into a black out.

Today Light Blue has over 5 million registered users and is a pillar of China’s LGBTQ community—they’ve even created partnerships with local and national health departments in HIV-prevention programs. As the CEO of Light Blue and Blued, Geng has received praises from international organizations such as the UN and the World Health Organization—and even China’s own prime minster KeQiang Li, in 2012. Equipped with more resources and clout than ever, the company continues to expand its popular platforms and public health initiatives. 

Censored, but not fully

Though the Chinese government still forbids representations of homosexuality on TV and has censored documentaries about being gay, they appear to be more leniant when it comes to digital content. China may have barricaded itself with the Great Fire Wall and imposed brutal censors on its internet, but its netizens are more informed and liberated than at any other point in history. Online activism has on some level forced the Chinese government to become more transparent, and though ironclad bans are still are in place on content mentioning Tiananmen incident or Falun Gong, the internet censors seem to be loosening their grips on a lot of issues from government malfeasances and press freedoms to subcultural marginalized populations such as LGBTQ community. Without some level of acquiescence from the Chinese government, China’s LGBTQ’s online presence couldn’t have reached today’s scale.

China censors its internet in two ways: Sweeping keyword blocks and a more manual approach where up to 1,000 censors might be employed at any one time to annihilate sensitive information. On top of that, approximately 20,000–50,000 internet police and internet monitors are situated at all levels of government. Once “immoral” content is found, fines and shutdowns are imposed. Sites often therefore opt to over-censor their own content that isn’t even explicit in order to avoid interacting with the jurisdiction.

For example, in April, the word “feminism” suddenly became taboo on Weibo, accompanied with a merciless keyword blockage that allowed no leeway for any related information. The incident that led to this total lockdown was as innocuous as an internet-based feminist group called “F the feminist group” holding signs in subways deterring sexual harassment behaviors.

Harvard researchers theorize that the internet has become the Chinese government’s platform to allow citizens to express grievances, but once the closely monitored freedom of speech sparks will for potential collective actions, this allowance gets retracted. Last year, five feminists were arrested (link in English) for planning rallies protesting sexual harassment.

A community that only lives online

The fact that LGBTQ-related content is now alive and well on China’s internet suggests that neither the central government nor local host sites consider the content to be a threat anymore—as long as they don’t try to garner support with rallies IRL.

Geng believes this major political shift began with the vocal presence of the LGBTQ community online. Jason Q Ng, an expert on Chinese internet censorship (link in English), told Quartz that the Chinese government might start to realize that a LGBTQ presence does not threaten the stability of their regime. The gay community’s online presence has helped debunk the public’s popular misunderstandings and against LGBTQ people, which has helped destigmatize gay culture in China.

However, some members of the gay population are not as positive. SiDa Jiang (who is known as Daghe) is an openly gay character on one of the most popular talk shows in China, “Says the Weirdoes.” Daghe came out during the first season of the show and rose to stardom overnight for a speech he made in the third season about a heartbroken relationship with a man online. “Obviously as an openly gay man, I feel incumbent to do some stuff for the community and people expect that from me, but with China’s current situation, there’s really not much I can do aside from saying a few words online” he says. “Weibo’s 140 characters can only do so much.”

China has not yet made any legislative effort to improve the rights of its population’s LGBTQ community, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll making any progress anytime soon, Renowned LGBTQ rights activist Yinhe Li has been asking representatives to submit bills to legalize gay marriage during China’s annual legislative sessions every year since the 2000, but the bills never gathered enough support.

So, for now, the Chinese LGBTQ community is sadly still segregated from the real world and only gets to exist online—but at least our community there is growing and thriving.