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Chinese netizens’ #IamLGBT campaign pushes change at Weibo

Image remixed from Wikimedia. CC: AT-SA.

The viral social media campaign #IamLGBT (#我是同性戀) has successfully pressured China’s most popular social media platform, Weibo, to scale back its censorship of LGBT content.

The shift does not signal an end to the silencing of LGBT voices online, but it demonstrates a significant departure from the company's standard line.

On April 13, Weibo announced plans to launch a three-month crackdown on cartoon, game and multimedia content, in accordance with China's cybersecurity law, which emphasizes ideological control and “socialist core values” as key components of maintaining state security. The law does not explicitly address content reflecting LGBT topics.

The company specifically stated that content related to LGBT topics would be targeted, and that it had already deleted 56,243 posts, removed 108 user accounts and shut down 62 topical discussion threads.

On the next day, “LGBT voices”, a popular LGBT user account made an announcement on their Weibo:

【公告】由于不可抗力原因,同志之声微博编辑部将无限期暂停工作。在暂停工作期间,我们将不再使用@同志之声 官方微博更新任何同志资讯。感谢新浪微博多年来对同志之声的支持与帮助!感谢2009年至今关注同志之声的微博读者:你的每一次评论、转发与点赞,都是在完成一次对爱的发声。愿明天会更好!

[Public announcement] Due to matters beyond our control, the Weibo editorial of LGBT voices will cease operations indefinitely. During this period, we will not use the official Weibo of LGBT voices to publish updates on LGBT news. We want to express our thanks to Weibo for supporting LGBT voices all these years. I want to thank Weibo users who have been supporting us since 2009. Every comment, like and share is a voice out for love. Let’s hope we have a better tomorrow.

The above message was shared for more than 37,000 times.

Soon after the news spread, a large number of Weibo users began posting the hashtag #IamLGBT to protest the censorship. In less than one week, the hashtag had been used 500 thousand times garnered roughly 500 million views. Censorship authorities attempted to crack down on the online protest by deleting the topical pages, but could not keep apace with users as they continued speaking out and as mainstream media outlets outside China began to followed the story.

Under the pressure of strong public opinion, the People’s Daily (an official publication of the Chinese Communist Party) published a memorandum on April 15 stating that LGBT content should not be confused with vulgar, violent or pornographic content.

The next day, Weibo amended its announcement stating that its three-month censorship measures would not specifically target at LGBT content, but would focus only on vulgar, pornographic and violent content.

The LGBT voices account on Weibo restored its operation with another announcement on April 16:

【公告:#同志之声微博恢复更新#】感谢每一位参与发声的你。没有阿声的 48 小时所发生的一切,足以证明:发声才有可能改变。@同志之声 微博编辑部即刻重新出发!—— 48 小时内,全因有你:同志之声 7 年前发起的 #我是同性戀# 微博话题阅读量超过 5 亿,超越 #撑同志反歧视# 成为中国互联网历史上最高阅读量的同志微博话题;48 小时内,世界十大报纸、党和政府的《人民日报》撰稿发文为同志发声;@微博管理员 最终修正错误决定,不再将同性恋列入违规内容清查范围。

——以上所有,都将被历史铭记。同志公益事业的路上,有你更有力量!我们将继续不遗余力传播健康的、科学的、有见地的同志资讯,让公众更客观、更科学地了解同志群体,从而消除歧视。同志之声也将不忘初心,继续在多领域为中国 LGBT 群体服务。

[Public announcement: #LGBT voices restores its operation#] Thank you so much for speaking out. What has happened in the last 48 hours could prove that just by speaking out, one can bring change. The editorial of @LGBT voices can continue again — within 48 hours because of you. The hashtag #IamLGBT, which we started using seven years ago, accumulated more than 500 million views. It became the most read LGBT topic surpassing the hashtag #SupportLGBT against discrimination in China’s internet history. Within 48 hours, more than 10 media outlets outside China and the government and party affiliated People’s Daily spoke out on the issue. @Weibo admin has amended its decision and will no longer list LGBT content in its censorship list.

All of this should be recorded in history. With you standing by us, LGBT community work will remain strong. We will continue to spread healthy, scientific and informative LGBT content so that the public will develop a more comprehensive and scientific understanding of the LGBT community. This is the best way to tackle discrimination. LGBT voices will stick to our mission and continue serving the Chinese LGBT community.

But this is just one barrier lifted, among many others that remain firmly in place.

The Weibo censorship announcement was not an isolated incident, nor was it a random mistake made by the company. It was the result of pressure from the censorship authorities. LGBT content has been a target of censorship crackdowns in recent years. WeChat user @Freedom-404 has documented the following LGBT content censorship incidents (via China Digital Times):

March 2018: A screening of the award-winning film, Call me by your name, was cancelled at the Beijing Film Festival. The movie, which tells the love story of a homosexual couple, won the Best Adapted Screenplay at the US Academy Awards and was nominated for the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Original Music.

May 2017: Local media outlet, Metropolis Weekly, prepared a special feature for the International Day Against Homophobia. The outlet was forced to withdraw the series of reports.

June 2017: The Online Audio Visual Service Provider Association issued a guideline demanding that online platforms censor content related to abnormal sexual behaviors including incest, homosexuality, sexual violence, sadism and masochism. Soon after, online audio and visual content platforms, including Ximalaya.com and Youku had taken down a significant proportion of its LGBT content.

July 2017: When feminist scholar Li Yinhe spoke out for the LGBT community against the crackdown, her account was suspended for three months.

July 2015: A popular online video program, “Should I come out to my parents?” was banned by the the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. The official reason for the ban was that the guests were too sympathetic to “abnormal” sexual behavior and that the program challenged conventional values and morality.

Weibo’s amended decision and the reappearance of LGBT voices will probably do well to temper public outrage, but it doesn’t mean that LGBT content will be spared from the latest censorship crackdown.

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