China's Weibo Reverses Gay Content Ban in Surprise Win for LGBT Community

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On Friday, the powerful social media platform announced new guidelines banning gay-themed content, prompting widespread outcry and sending the hashtag "#iamgay" viral.

Bowing to a wave of popular backlash, Chinese social media giant Sina Weibo has reversed a briefly instated ban on gay content. The move represents a rare, possibly unprecedented, win for China's nascent LGBT rights movement.

Weibo, often referred to as "China's Twitter," issued new guidelines last Friday saying that it would begin deleting all gay-themed cartoons and videos, along with violent and pornographic material. The company said the initiative was an effort to “create a sunny and harmonious community environment," in compliance with Beijing's cyber security laws.

But the decision appears to have been out of touch with the widespread growing social tolerance for LGBT rights in China's major cities. By late Friday, the hashtags #iamgay and #iamgaynotapervert had gone viral on the service, with users posting photos with their partners, angry comments and rainbow emojis. 

In one post that was liked some 60,000 times, a woman in Shanghai wrote: "I am the mother of a gay son. My son and I love our country. No matter where we go we tell others loudly and proudly that we are from China.... But today…I suddenly [find] that in this strong country, Sina Weibo is discriminating against and attacking this sexual minority."

Weibo initially attempted to tamp down the protests by deleting the posts, but by late Monday it had made the decision to reverse course, saying that gay-themed content would no longer be targeted by the "clean-up" effort.

"We thank all for your discussions and suggestions," it said in a brief statement posted to its website.

Homosexuality is not illegal in China, and the country's big cities boast vibrant, semi-open gay scenes. But Beijing's official stance toward depictions of homosexuality in the media is repressive, if inconsistently enforced. Late last month, the state-backed Beijing International Film Festival abruptly cut the Oscar-winning gay romance Call Me by Your Name from its lineup. Gay-themed content has been barred from television in the country for years, and a controversial set of guidelines introduced last year placed a similar ban in the online streaming space.

Yet exceptions have occasionally been made. The widely discussed "gay moment" in Disney's live-action Beauty and the Beast was allowed to run uncensored in Chinese cinemas last year, and state newspaper The People's Daily even celebrated the decision on Weibo, posting: "Controversial gay moment kept in Disney's #BeautyAndTheBeast...requires no guidance for minor audience." Barry Jenkins' gay-themed Oscar Moonlight was similarly allowed to stream last year on iQiyi, a local Netflix-like platform.

On Saturday, "The Gay Voice," a popular Weibo page devoted to gay rights issues and gay art, announced to its 230,000-plus followers that it would suspend posting due to an "event of force majeure." The reference to Weibo's repressive guidelines from Friday prompted a flood of popular support, with users of all backgrounds taking up and retweeting the #iamgay hashtag throughout the weekend.  

"I feel totally surprised and touched," Hua Zile, the page's founder told CNN on Monday in response to the rule reversal.

"Seven years ago, not that many people were willing to make their voices heard this way," he added. "It's amazing to see this happen now, with everyone — straight or gay, celebrities or ordinary people — using the hashtag and joining in."