China has never been a particularly progressive place for gay rights. But a recent firestorm over a Chinese actress’s homophobic microblog posts suggests there may be a shift in societal attitudes towards the LGBT community. And in a country that only 10 years ago still classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
The trouble began several weeks ago when Lu Liping — a best actress award winner last year at the Golden Horse Awards, the Chinese-language Oscars — reposted a tweet by a Chinese pastor based in upstate New York which decried the state’s move to legalise gay marriage. The actress, a born-again Christian, also posted messages on her Sina weibo account — China’s version of Twitter — citing the Bible and saying gays could be saved with help from Jesus.
The reaction online was fierce. Lu’s posts received thousands of negative comments from weibo users and the actress was also banned from this year’s Golden Horse Awards.
Perhaps most surprising, however, was the response on China Central Television, one of the Communist Party’s official mouthpieces. In a late-night commentary, CCTV host Qiu Qiming blasted Lu for her intolerance, saying that gays and lesbians “have the right to exist and develop themselves in society”.
This is a powerful statement of support. “In the mainstream media, homosexuality has always been taboo,” says Bin Xu, director of Common Language, a LGBT support and advocacy group in Beijing. “The media has never made a statement of this kind to address discrimination against the LGBT community. It was really surprising.”
Whether it bolsters the gay rights movement, though, remains to be seen. Gays and lesbians still face tremendous obstacles when it comes to freedom of expression in China. Gay-themed films, books and other publications are subject to strict censorship laws and gay websites are routinely scrubbed of their content during important national events.
Small steps forward are also usually followed by crackdowns. Last January, the state-run China Daily newspaper splashed a photo of China’s first gay wedding ceremony across its front page – but just days later, authorities in Beijing shut down the first Mr Gay China pageant an hour before it was due to begin.
But despite this, there are signs of a growing acceptance by the Chinese public, particularly in bigger cities. One online poll conducted recently by the website ifeng.com showed that 70 per cent of respondents believe the rights of the gay community should be respected; another poll this spring by lady.163.com suggested that a quarter of Chinese support gay marriage.
“I’m happy to see the opening up and respecting of differences,” Bin says. “It’s very different from when I grew up and the educational system emphasised that you had to be the same. Now we’re seeing that diversity is not that bad.”