During this year’s Pride Month, soccer star Li Ying made history as China’s first female athlete to come out publicly as gay, in a candid series of celebratory photos posted on social media, showing her posing happily alongside her partner.
It’s increasingly common worldwide for celebrities and high-profile sports stars to come out, often to widespread public support. But in China, Li’s announcement received a very different reaction.
Her post, uploaded on June 22 onto Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, immediately went viral, becoming one of the top trending topics on the platform. And while much of the reaction was positive, with people sending their congratulations, Li’s account was also inundated with a wave of homophobic abuse. The post was later deleted without explanation.
Li has not posted on Weibo since. Chinese state-run media, meanwhile, did not report on Li’s announcement, nor the subsequent reaction it generated.
Li’s experience is just the tip of what for many was something of a grim Pride Month in China. In years past, June was filled with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) events in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, during which China’s sexual minorities could semi-openly celebrate their identity.
“Every year it becomes more and more challenging,” one Chinese LGBTQ artist, who asked not to be named for fear of government reprisal, told CNN. “Events are fewer and advocates are finding it more and more difficult to raise acceptance.”
In recent decades, sexual minorities in China seemed to have received gradual — though uneasy — acceptance by authorities.
China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and removed it from its official list of mental disorders in 2001.
But with same-sex marriage still illegal and Chinese authorities banning “abnormal sexual behaviors” from the media in 2016, the impression among many is that LGBTQ people are free to explore their identities — so long as they do so in private.
When several users attempted to access the groups, they received a notice saying, “After receiving relevant complaints, all content has been blocked and the account has been put out of service.”
Speaking to CNN under a pseudonym, Cathy, the manager of one of the deleted groups, said spaces for the LGBTQ community to speak openly are shrinking rapidly in China.
“Our goal is to simply survive, to continue to be able to serve LGBT students and provide them with warmth. We basically don’t engage in any radical advocating anymore,” she said.
Hu said if LGBTQ people in China could just accept their country was never going to be on the “forefront” of rights for sexual minorities, they might be happier.
“LGBT people in China at this stage should not seek to become a high-profile ideology,” he said.
Some LGBTQ people have blamed the crackdown on the incorrect impression that homosexuality is a Western import into China, and groups supporting gay rights are liable to infiltration by foreign forces.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has increasingly stressed the ruling Communist Party’s absolute control over every aspect of society. Some also suspect a more direct link between the crackdown on LGBTQ rights and top officials’ worldviews, which for many were shaped during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, when authorities attempted to purge any “non-socialist” elements — including homosexuality — from Chinese society.
“Nationalist trolls stigmatize LGBT activists as being supported by foreign forces. Just like what they did to the feminist activists,” the LGBTQ artist said.
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