How China’s YouTube Became a Rare Safe Space for LGBT Streamers
Before it was China’s answer to YouTube, Bilibili started as a niche streaming platform for fans of anime, comics, and games (ACG). Today, it’s one of China’s biggest media portals, home to everything from documentaries and variety shows to a much-loved annual alternative New Year’s Eve Gala. But its status as a home for niche subcultures and marginalized groups remains intact, if you know where to look.
One of the best examples of this is the site’s vibrant community of LGBT vloggers and lifestyle streamers. This might come as a surprise in a country where public media portrayals of queerness are subject to intense official scrutiny. Indeed, it certainly surprised me when I first came across a large amount of vlogs related to the topic of coming out. One prominent gay vlogger, for example, uploaded a 20-minute video portraying four trips to the hospital he made after a relative revealed his sexual identity to his mother. The first visit was initiated by his mom, who refused to accept her son’s homosexuality, and took him to a doctor to ask if his sexual orientation could be “rectified.” The latter three visits consisted of trips he and his boyfriend made to three different hospitals to gauge medical experts’ opinions about whether homosexuality was a disease and if it should be treated. Uploaded in August 2019, the vlog has garnered more than two million views.
On the surface, the popularity of coming out vlogs on Bilbilbi parallels similar phenomena in the West. Internet personalities such as Troye Sivan have used YouTube both as a means to publicly come out and as a way to manage their relationships with fans. But there are significant differences between Western and Chinese queer vloggers’ use of video sites. Whereas for YouTube influencers, coming out is often an individual act, sometimes taking place after a long build-up, Chinese queer vloggers typically come out at the very start of their careers.
Why have coming out vlogs gained traction on Bilibili, in particular, and what does their popularity say about queer politics in digital China?
Based on my research, coming out vlogs represent a convergence of danmei, or “boys love,” culture, and queer politics. Originating in Japan, BL is a genre of fictional media that celebrates romantic and homoerotic relationships between men — not all of them gay. It has attracted mostly middle-class, well-educated young women, known in China as funü, or “rotten women,” by providing an alternative, potentially empowering space to reimagine intimacy outside the constraints of patriarchy and heteronormativity. Nowadays, BL is increasingly globalized, and BL cultural products have become popular in places such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The Chinese mainland is no exception to this BL boom, despite its restrictive media environment, and the country has seen a steady stream of wildly popular BL-novel-based drama series, including “Addicted,” “The Untamed,” and “Word of Honor.”
In this context, queer vloggers on Bilibili embody a kind of real-life BL narrative, something that helps them attract viewers. This is one reason why they almost invariably introduce their partners at the start of their careers. Take the gay vlogger I mentioned above as an example. Almost all his videos feature his boyfriend and center around how sweet and committed their relationship is. Thanks to Bilibili’s “bullet comment” function, which enables anonymous comments to appear over videos in quasi-real time, it’s easy to track what viewers express interest in as they watch as well as how vloggers respond to viewers’ demands. Displays of affection between queer partners, for instance, frequently incite outbursts of comments and emotions from viewers. Consequently, the vlogger is encouraged to produce more content like this. Through this interactive mode of production, the queer vlogger constructs an idealized image of a loving gay couple that conforms to the fantasies of BL fans.
There is no use denying the commercial nature of queer content on Bilibili. Even the vloggers’ self-representations are shaped and motivated by the desire to attract viewers, gain popularity, and earn money. They prioritize audience preferences, sometimes even over authenticity. As a result, the queer cultural production process and vlogger-audience interactions have become highly commercialized.
In English-language scholarship, the marriage of commercial forces and queer representation is generally seen in a negative light. Terms such as “homonormativity” warn against the ways in which consumerism is domesticating queer politics, stripping it of its radical edge and transformative potential.
But I think these critiques bear reconsideration in the Chinese context, in which commercial channels constitute one of the few spaces where queerness can be publicly portrayed and negotiated. The case of coming out vlogs on Bilibili, more specifically, calls attention to an alternative queer politics, one imagined in relation to the Chinese family. Queer vloggers on Bilibili usually come out by introducing their partners and negotiating with their parents. Parental approval or disapproval thus forms a key part of queer vloggers’ sexual identities. This is in sharp contrast to more individualistic forms of LGBT politics, in which coming out is regarded as a personal decision and as a prerequisite for authentic selfhood.
The fact that parents play such a significant role in Chinese queer vloggers’ coming out narratives points to a relational selfhood that challenges the liberal pluralist notion of the independent, self-sustained individual as the basic unit for queer politics.
Hong Kong scholar Chou Wah-Shan has famously proposed the model of “coming home,” as opposed to “coming out” to describe the experience of queerness in China, arguing that it better highlights the salience of familial ties in Chinese queer lives. If we follow this perspective, we may find otherwise neglected moments in these commercialized coming out vlogs that can be regarded as truly transformative. In a lesbian vlogger’s video about how her mom accepted her relationship, for instance, the bullet comments were filled with expressions of admiration, as anonymous viewers described how the mom’s acceptance moved them to tears. They also said that their own parents could never be like this and called the mom a “divine parent.”
These comments reveal how the ideals of the Chinese family may be reconstituted through a queer lens. By giving voice to their yearnings for a LGBT-supportive “divine parent,” viewers actively imagine a utopian queer kinship that is yet to come. Such a queer kinship centers around, while subversively reimagining, the Chinese biological family. This diverges from Western theorizations of individual-centered queer kinship, and challenges us to rethink what queerness is and could become in the Chinese context.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Visual elements from Nataliya Ustyuzhantseva and Skarin/iStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)