Jul 12, 2016
Li Zijian, a 19-year-old university student living in Shanghai, stares intently at his iPhone during a break from packing up his dorm room for the long summer holiday. He’s heading back to his hometown in central China soon — a six-hour high-speed train journey away — to spend two months with his family.
“Li Zijian” is not his real name. Like most young gay Chinese, Li’s relatives, and many of his friends, don’t know about his sexuality, and for now he’d like to keep it that way. But while he watches one of his favorite live broadcasters on the Chinese app Blued — the most popular gay social networking app on the planet, with 22 million members — he’s just one of many.
Li is watching a 19-year-old from Chongqing — a city of hills and skyscrapers in China’s southwest — who goes by the name “Gobeing” on Blued. He has around 15,000 fans, and currently more than 1,000 of them are watching him. The monkeys on his blue T-shirt are half-covered by a white blanket, despite the summer heat. Awkward moments of silence intersperse his responses to viewers’ comments and questions, which include what he ate today, requests to sing, interrogations about what kind of men he likes, and some that are a little more ribald.
In a society where gay men are almost invisible — just 15 percent of Chinese LGBT individuals have come out to their families — and gay characters and themes in popular culture are subject to censorship, live streaming on gay social media apps began at the start of 2016 and became instantly popular, providing much-needed visibility, but also padding the pockets of gay businesspeople.
“The viewer comments are sometimes really gross,” Li says without taking his eyes off the screen — it’s hard to keep up with what people are saying because their comments scroll by so fast. “Reading these messages is just as important as hearing the broadcaster’s responses” Li says.
They include “Are you a top or a bottom?” and “Wow, fresh meat!” and perhaps the most common of all: “Take off your clothes!” But that’s not going to happen, and Gobeing deftly avoids such requests. These live streams might seem free and fluid, but they are strictly regulated: As with all live streaming apps in China, as soon as a broadcaster shows any inclination toward explicit sexual content he or she will likely be cut off.
But this level of regulation and censorship isn’t just limited to live-streaming apps. Just this year the China Television Drama Production Industry Association released censorship guidelines for television producers which stated that homosexuality was “abnormal sexual behavior” and unfit for inclusion in TV drama, and a popular gay internet series called “Addicted” was suddenly deleted from the web without explanation.
The clampdown on gay content has coincided, though, with the explosive rise of live streaming, leading ordinary gay people in China to gain thousands of fans simply by downloading an app and broadcasting their lives, through their smartphones, to viewers across China.
Kyle He, 21, of Hunan province in central China has just graduated with a civil engineering degree and is about to start work. When he first acknowledged he was gay, He says he plundered the internet in search of others who were in similar situations.
Now with Blued’s live-streaming platform, He says it is much easier to find people with the same life experiences. “It helps people who have just realized their identity as gay,” he says. “They can see other gays who enjoy their life and live happily, which will give them lots of courage and confidence.”
But that hasn’t helped He to come out to his family, which is why he declines to give his full Chinese name.
“My family is a more traditional Chinese family, and they think that boys need to pass on the family name, continue the so-called family bloodline,” He says. “So I’m facing the question of marriage.”
He is not alone. The United Nations Development Programme’s recently released report, “Being LGBT in China,” paints a bleak picture. A majority of the LGBT respondents to the survey said they were forced — or had faced pressure — to marry against their will. Some gay men and lesbian women enter into heterosexual marriages and have children in order to appease their families, although more and more are vowing not to do so.
Jie Lian, a 19-year-old from Beijing, tells Sixth Tone that he, too, likes watching Blued’s live broadcasts because he doesn’t have any interactions with gay people in the non-virtual world.
“The audience will have discussions while the broadcaster talks, so I can get a feel for what they are thinking,” Jie says. “But this kind of exchange of ideas only happens for me on social media and not in real life.”
Like many users, Jie spends real money on virtual gifts that he sends to broadcasters, who can then exchange the presents for real money at the end of the month, after Blued has taken a cut. Sending virtual gifts — cars, flowers, beer, and food — increases the chance of a broadcaster replying to viewer questions or acknowledging presents by mentioning the gift-giver’s name.
Wang Shuaishuai, a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Amsterdam University who has been studying Blued for his thesis, says that live broadcasts have quickly become Blued’s primary income. He calls this phenomenon “the capitalization of homosexuality in China.”
Wang says that gay business is overshadowing queer politics in China, and he believes that Blued’s live-streaming success is not a result of tightening censorship in other spheres. “Rather, these live streams are a new space that has been carved by gay Chinese businessmen who have made it possible for new manifestations of gay culture to surface.”
Wang says that for the cosmopolitan middle class, live streaming is merely a site of consumption and a way to satisfy their commercial tastes, although he agrees that Blued’s live streaming might be valuable for young gay Chinese in smaller towns and cities, who are dependent on social apps to compensate for their otherwise weak bonds with gay people.
Fan Popo, the queer activist and independent filmmaker from Beijing, echoes Wang’s statement. “I always say that the internet means more democracy in China,” he tells Sixth Tone. “Before, if you were from a really poor area, or from a really small city, you couldn’t find your community. But with live streaming on Blued, you feel like someone’s in front of you, like they’re with you.”
Fan, 31, believes that the “very few” mainstream depictions of gay and lesbian people in China that make it onto our screens are often heavily riddled with stereotypes. “Usually writers and producers think gay men must be very sissy, and lesbians are all butch,” he says.
According to Fan, live streaming on Blued has offered a more diverse picture of gay people in the media, a picture that’s less likely to be constrained by stereotypes. “I think there are many different types of people live-streaming on Blued, from older to younger,” he says. “There is lots of diversity.”
Author and scholar Olivia Khoo of Australia’s Monash University, whose research focuses on screen media and sexuality in the Asia-Pacific region, tells Sixth Tone that while it’s difficult to avoid stereotypes in popular culture, there are so many young LGBT people growing up in the West who turn to such representations as role models.
The popularity of live streaming in China, particularly on Blued, could very well offer young gay men in China an alternative to the representations they encounter in the mainstream media, Khoo says, adding that “The ‘liveness’ and authenticity of these broadcasts provide a realness to representations of LGBT people and their everyday experiences.”
Back in Li’s Shanghai dorm, one of his roommates has just walked in. Li suddenly closes Gobeing’s Blued broadcast and stealthily switches to another app. His roommates don’t know he is gay.
Li drops his phone next to some T-shirts and other clothes strewn about his bed. He begins to fold them.
“I really should get back to packing my stuff anyway,” Li says, quietly. “I’ll have plenty of time to watch this stuff during summer vacation.”
Additional reporting by Yin Yijun and Zhou Yinan.
(Header image: Svetikd/E+/VCG)