China’s famously inflexible web censorship merged with a rising wave of cultural conservatism to almost completely erase queer visibility across Chinese media.
In December 2015, President Xi Jinping introduced a ban on “
abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours” from film and television. As a result, gay and lesbian characters were taken off the air, leaving the Chinese LGBTI community stranded by the notorious ‘Great Firewall’ of China, a phrase coined in 1997 to refer to its stringent online censorship policies.
Since then, China’s online censorship policies have become an international issue.
What does and does not violate Chinese censorship standards has become a multi-million dollar guessing game for the American film industry, who regularly alter and edit films in order to screen them in the world’s fastest growing box-office market. The U.S. Trade Representative wrote in an annual report that Xi’s push for increased web censorship has become an international trade barrier, which China denies, and non-profit Great Fire alleges that China has blocked ramped up online censorship by blocking thousands of webpages, domains, and IP addresses.
Tech Insider spoke with Xiaogang Wei, a leading LGBTI activist based in Beijing, and the creator of “Queer Comrades,” an LGBT focused webcast where Wei interviews prominent figures in China’s queer community. Despite China’s stringent regulations against gay media, Queer Comrades has aired online for nearly a decade. As the site is based in China, it’s under constant scrutiny from the state.
“Avoiding [government attention] isn’t possible,” Wei told Tech Insider. “Instead, [“Queer Comrades”] tries not to focus on criticising the government’s actions, but to reflect that the Chinese LGBTI community has different voices and different concerns.”
Wei prioritises diversity on the show and has interviewed transgender and non-binary activists, sex workers, LGBTI allies, and HIV-affected people about the complexities of LGBTI life in China. As the social movement becomes more comprehensive, he’s eager to further diversify the guests on the program.
“In 2007, our biggest challenge was to find LGBTI people who were willing to go on-camera,” he told us. “Now, queer spaces have become more and more diverse and a big change from guests is that now, a lot of people take the initiative to contact us on our program.”
Wei says his audience is in the thousands and the Queer Comrades site has expanded to include user-submitted content, including documentaries from student filmmakers and web diaries from LGBTI people across the nation. This commitment to showcasing the wide spectrum of opinions and perspectives within the LGBT movement actually surpasses its US equivalent, which is frequently criticised for privileging gay men and ignoring the other members of the LGBTI community.
Following the historic passage of same-sex marriage in the US., Greta Gustava Martela, co-founder of Trans Lifeline, told The Daily Beast: “Transgender women, particularly transgender women of colour, are overwhelmingly the people represented by LGBT violence and suicide statistics, and yet we have to struggle for simple representation in the LGBT movement.”
Wei says among his longterm goals for LGBT activism in China is for the country to expand its outreach to various LGBT activists groups and make it easier for them to work in concert with each other.
“I hope that the queer rights movement can bring social change [to China],” he said “and, with it, the understanding that everyone regardless of their age, gender, race, appearance, sexual orientation, [or] disability have the right to be free of discrimination.”
Among Wei’s accomplishments for the LGBT movement in China was organising its very first AIDS Walk in 2012.
Started in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis, the AIDS walk is a marathon fundraiser for clinics and non-profits that provide services to HIV-affected communities. Wei chose the Great Wall of China as the place for the inaugural marathon.
“For many people, this was their first time seeing people living with HIV and their first time listening to them speak,” he explained. “This was the first time understanding how HIV-affected people are discriminated against in society. These are problems not easily solved by money or medicine. Choosing the Great Wall was mainly because it’s so iconic and representative of China and also invokes a lot of attention and interest from people in the media.”
Wei has made tremendous strides for the LGBT community in the online sphere. The internet is essential to any efforts to affect change because, in a country 3.7 million square miles wide, connecting people is only feasible online. This is doubly true for people facing intense stigma (arguably supported by the state) if they make themselves known offline.
As online and offline spaces (and identities) converge, web-based activism and outreach like much of Wei’s work will only become more important.
“There are many people who continue to support [Queer Comrades] and our work,” he told Tech Insider. “I think China’s general public are giving more recognition to [the LGBT movement] and more and more people are learning the importance of gaining LGBT rights.”
Mandarin to English translation for this interview was provided by Rachel Butt.