When the Beijing LGBT Center screened a prerecorded lecture on gay-themed movies last year, the venue was so packed that latecomers had to jostle for a spot on the windowsills of the rented classroom doubling as their makeshift theater. This year, however, a similar event attracted only a handful of people, leaving much of the same room empty. The organizers soon realized their online announcements never reached the community. Soon after, other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups reported that their posts were disappearing from Douban, ostensibly one of China's most liberal social-networking websites. They have since banded together to boycott the site.
Douban, once a popular online platform among China's growing gay community, has yet to directly address the complaint. A spokesperson told state media that the company "doesn't welcome any remarks of discrimination and hatred toward race, religion ... or sexual orientation," but declined to comment further. However gay-rights activists see it as part of an on-again, off-again crackdown on the LGBT community. "My feeling is that the level of censorship right now has slightly improved from its worst," says Wang Qing, 26, a spokeswoman for the Beijing LGBT Center. "It's better than a month ago when they basically wouldn't publish any of our messages. Now they are letting through a selected few."
This latest censorship saga underscores China's still-fluctuating stance on homosexuality. Since the decriminalization of gay sex in 1997, the Chinese government has come a long way in lifting some of the stigma associated with the gay community. Starting in 2001, homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental illness. And, over the past few years, several prominent gay clubs have emerged as a staple of nightlife in China's first-tier cities. Even in the state-run China Daily, a recent op-ed piece called for more tolerance of the LGBT community so that, it said, cities like Shanghai could one day be culturally on a par with New York City. When it comes to movies and TV shows, however, strict censorship still applies to homosexual content, which is deemed inappropriate for public consumption.
For now, Beijing's gay community is focusing on finding new ways to get their message out. Since the Douban boycott, they've resorted to alternative channels including microblogs, where their event announcements have successfully reached thousands of followers. But according to Wang, it may take a while for turnout to reach preboycott levels, since as many as 20% of active members had heard about the group through its website. Plus, publicity comes at a cost. "On the one hand, we definitely hope to reach out to more people, but on the other hand, we are worried that too much publicity will lead to unwanted attention from the government, which often means trouble for us," Wang says.
Indeed, few familiar with China's gay-rights movement can forget that the much-hyped Mr. Gay China pageant was abruptly called off right before it was set to begin in January 2010. More recently, a downtown Beijing shopping mall quietly cancelled its Valentine's Day kissing contest this year, allegedly after many gay couples had expressed an interest in joining the event. "The official reason for cancellation given by the mall was due to 'lack of participants,'" says Wang, "but clearly that's not true." In 2009, China's first gay-pride festival in Shanghai was interrupted by last-minute visits by the police, resulting in several movie screenings and performances being cancelled, despite earlier positive coverage in the state media.
Although no strangers to acts of repression, many Chinese gay-rights advocates find Douban's censorship a major frustration. "We all know that LGBT groups love Douban," writes Aibai, another Beijing-based gay-rights group, in an open letter to the popular website. "You once aspired to freedom, independence and equality, but now you have broken our hearts."