Not Quite a Rainbow: How Chinese Media Tells LGBT Stories
Whether due to social pressure or outright discrimination, few LGBT Chinese feel willing or able to come out and live their lives publicly. One knock-on effect of this is that, for the vast majority of Chinese, their only exposure to queer culture and lifestyles is through media reports.
That makes it all the more vital for media outlets to regularly cover LGBT issues, and to do so with care and respect. For an example of how coverage can positively impact the lives of LGBT Chinese, we need look no further than the landmark 2014 ruling against a psychological counseling institute that provided “gay conversion therapy.” Although by that point, it had already been 13 years since China had officially acknowledged that homosexuality was not a disease, widespread media coverage of the ruling helped raise awareness of the continued pathologization of homosexuality and helped expose a number of medical institutes offering similar “conversion therapies.” Technically these treatments are still legal, but few institutes dare advertise their conversion therapy programs anymore.
That case and its aftermath represented a high-water mark of sorts for reporting on LGBT issues in China: After my organization, the China Rainbow Media Awards, began monitoring Chinese media coverage of LGBT issues in 2012, the number of LGBT-related reports gradually climbed before hitting a peak of 867 in 2015. Since then, however, coverage has dropped. In 2020, as first China and then the world were roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese media outlets ran just 348 LGBT-related news stories — a 40% drop from 2019.
Early on, Chinese media coverage of LGBT issues focused on public health and HIV/AIDS, before eventually branching out into LGBT rights and discrimination, including unequal employment practices, the LGBT community’s lack of legal standing, or practices like the above-mentioned conversion therapy. More recently, however, two new topics have attracted increased attention from media outlets and the public: the pink economy and queer culture. Last year, for example, BlueCity, the parent company of the popular LGBT dating application Blued, attracted widespread media attention leading up to its initial public offering, while the buzz surrounding the TV and film adaptations of a number of homoerotic danmei novels sparked public discussions on sexual minorities and orientations.
These reports suggest a more expansive view of LGBT issues in Chinese media. Instead of focusing on HIV or discrimination, outlets are now showing different sides of the LGBT experience.
More diverse coverage of LGBT Chinese can create more space for discussions about LGBT issues, and hopefully draw more attention to the everyday problems the LGBT community faces. But breadth isn’t the same as depth, and the ongoing shift in LGBT coverage away from social justice issues and toward softer subjects like economics — especially given the overall decline in coverage — could result in many important stories going unreported.
Social groups and organizations are thus vital for drawing attention toward a wide array of oft-neglected LGBT issues. For example, the recent uptick in coverage of transgender issues can be traced to a number of legal aid cases and public activism campaigns spearheaded by nonprofit organizations.
In our experience, most reporting on LGBT issues in Chinese media is either positive or neutral. In 2020, nearly half of the Chinese media reports we identified evinced a relatively positive stance on LGBT issues. That is, they made an effort to analyze the problems faced by sexual minorities in China, as well as the cultural and political reasons for them. Another 40% adopted a neutral stance, presenting the facts in question and giving equal attention to the views of all involved. Just 9% of reports on sexual minorities adopted a negative stance, often through language implying the LGBT community promotes moral corruption or relaying prejudices grounded in ignorance. Hearteningly, however, the trend toward more positive or neutral coverage has persisted over time, even as overall coverage has declined.
Most reports were published not by traditional print outlets, but by new media. When it comes to reporting on LGBT issues in China, online media plays a much larger role than its print counterparts: About 56% of news reports regarding the Chinese LGBT community were published by online platforms. These were also generally longer in length and encompassed a greater range of journalistic forms than print stories, including data analyses and more narrative pieces.
Unfortunately, the overall decline of the media in recent years — although most noticeable in the print sector — has indirectly affected the coverage and attention given to marginal issues such as LGBT rights, even at digital outlets. Some journalists have told us that LGBT-related topics are undervalued in their newsrooms, and that they often have a hard time persuading their editors to pursue stories about LGBT issues. Although blogs and other forms of self-published “WeMedia” are helping fill the gap, these cannot replace the role that traditional media plays in reaching the broader public, nor do they have the clout required to interview key personalities or obtain crucial data.
Raising the profile of sexual minorities is the first and most important step in addressing the problems they face. Media outlets, with their power to shape public perceptions and opinions, are a key part of this process. The narratives they tell and the ways they choose to portray people matter. If we want to erase the stigmas and discrimination LGBT people face, we need more accurate and inclusive reporting on sexual minorities, not less.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visual elements from ilyaliren/iStock, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)