May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia; but for some students at China’s elite Peking University, the day was marred by harassment directed against those who dared to mark it. The harassment of LGBTQ+ students and allies marks a new low in China’s recent turn against gay rights on campus. In late 2021, Shanghai University began collecting information on queer students for unclear reasons. In the summer of that same year, WeChat deleted LGBTQ+ student group accounts en masse, affecting students enrolled in elite institutions like Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University. Now, students at Peking University have detailed their experience of harassment at the hands of plainclothes campus police and teachers for wearing rainbow-colored face masks to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia. After describing being followed, and eventually detained, by a group of megaphone-wielding campus security officers after venturing out in a rainbow mask, one PKU student reflected on the dangers of homophobia:
Was it homophobia? Of course it was, but I’m used to that, and compared to the real threats we face, it’s not worth mentioning. What I care about is the grip of violence, shame, and the idea that “your gender and body do not belong to you.” These erasures and negations are the reason so many LGBTQ+ youth choose to end their lives after finding themselves pushed into a corner, neglected and despised. To me, today was a demonstration of the unlimited reach of power, but at least we can still feel the pain of that. Whether the memories are depressing, enraging, painful, or embarrassing, I want to unpack and interpret them, instead of silently forgetting. [Chinese]
Another student relayed a similar experience. Upon stepping into Peking University’s famous “Triangle,” the launching point of countless student protests, famously including the 1989 student movement and, arguably, China’s #MeToo movement, three students were detained for wearing rainbow-colored masks:
At noon, my girlfriend, a friend and I put on rainbow facemasks. My girlfriend even said I looked sweet. As soon as we stepped into the Triangle, a teacher said:
“Your facemasks look great, where did you get them?”
“We bought them ourselves,” we answered. “Here, take one.”
We naively thought we were doing something nice for International Day Against Homophobia. Later, a plainclothes officer gave us a reminder that this was the Triangle, [he began to threaten them in euphemisms about the Tiananmen student protests,] “of that moment between spring and summer.”
“Students, why don’t you take off your masks,” he suggested.
“Why should we?”
“It’s a bad influence. Here, I’ll give you some new ones.”
A moment later, we were confronted by three other teachers, standing before us in a row.
“Which school are you studying at?” one asked.
“Teacher, which school are you from?”
We both refused to identify ourselves.
“Are you planning to pass out those masks?” a teacher asked.
“No. They’re just for us to wear.”
“Okay. I’ll give you some new ones then.”
“Why? Is there something wrong with these?”
“They’re a bad influence. They could be used by people with ulterior motives. The internet never forgets.”
I simply couldn’t believe I was hearing those old chestnuts. That sort of thing is smug, condescending, xenophobic, and precludes any real dialogue. As we stood there, neither side willing to budge, the plainclothes officer approached us again.
“Students,” he said, “let me take down your information.”
“No need,” I hedged. “Anyhow, I didn’t bring my ID.”
An awkward silence followed. Neither side was going to convince the other, and it seemed they had no plans to arrest us.
So we left, still feeling some residual shock and helplessness […]
[…] On the road back, we passed a karaoke machine, an arcade basketball game, and people square dancing in Wanliu Plaza and working out. We saw so many people content with their lives, while others are hardly allowed to breathe. It felt like a bad joke. [Chinese]
Many international organizations, including the United States embassy and the French embassy, posted May 17 messages to Weibo. Chinese state media was nearly silent on the international event but for a brief blip. The Weibo account of People’s JoyWorks, a subsidiary of the Party’s flagship paper People’s Daily, shared a poster for the 2001 LGBTQ-themed film “Lan Yu” with the caption, “You and I are destined to be together.” The post was deleted soon after, inspiring anger among some and understanding among others:
小白龙想去太极殿偷瓜：So if we don’t get pissed off, People’s JoySide will treat us like we’re idiots? If you’re that afraid of the consequences, don’t post. I’m aware that deleting the post was likely not your decision, but it hurts even more to be offered hope, only to have it snatched away.
斯布恩-：I just saw a screenshot of the People’s Joyside’s post about the International Day Against Homophobia that was later deleted. I feel that even as China’s youth are increasingly accepting of diverse gender identities and orientations, the fear of accepting homosexuality grows alongside it.
Dogzia：How did May 17th disappear from the calendar?
叫我卷卷就好啦QVQ：If you want to delete it, go ahead. Maybe you were worried it was a bad influence. After all, only a minority of people in China are accepting of homosexuality. I hope that before I die, I’ll see the day when gay people in mainland China can marry. Even if that day never comes, I’ll go on loving the one for me the rest of my life.
那些许荣耀：Even though you deleted it, I’d still like to thank you. Knowing that someone remembered is enough. That’s all, I’ll let it go. [Chinese]
Depictions of non-traditional gender roles and sexual orientation are often controversial in China. Last year, state media amplified a screed from a previously little-known blogger calling for a campaign to “stamp out ‘pretty-boy’ and ‘sissy-boy’ tendencies” in China’s arts, film, and entertainment scene. Hollywood, while facing similar pressures at home, complies with such calls by censoring gay content for Chinese releases. Six seconds of dialogue in an upcoming Harry Potter movie, for example, will be removed for violating China’s anti-LGBTQ+ censorship regime. The offending lines are: “I was in love with you,” and “the summer Gellert and I fell in love.”
All of the above measures have led to a “tightening of breathing space,” as put by Bloomberg News in an analysis of why things have changed for China’s gay community and broader civil society since Xi Jinping came to power:
Probably the most visible effect since he came to power has been a tightening of breathing space for civil society, including groups serving the LGBTQ community. As described in a report by Holly Snape, a China scholar at the University of Glasgow, a policy introduced in 2021 makes it difficult for unapproved groups to survive, for example by banning media coverage and cutting them off from public meeting spaces or banking services. Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, says that backlash, after decades of grassroots community building, is “squeezing down the spaces through which LGBTQ people have found allies and each other.” That said, there are still less public pockets of the community that are thriving — a plethora of Chinese dating apps such as Blued are still widely available, allowing millions of people to connect. [Source]