The uproar was in response to a vow Friday by Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites, to delete posts relating to gay culture, part of a three-month “cleanup” effort.
Sina Weibo, a site similar to Twitter, said in its announcement that it was trying to limit the spread of sexually suggestive and violent content and that it would target cartoons, pictures, texts, short videos and romantic fiction. The site said its aim was to promote a “clear and harmonious” environment and to comply with stricter cybersecurity laws put in place by President Xi Jinping.
But many users were incensed, saying the campaign was another sign of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in China, more than two decades after the country decriminalized homosexuality.
Many posted selfies with the words “I am gay,” followed by a chain of rainbow emoticons. Activists circulated slogans like, “My mouth can be muted, but my love can’t.”
The Beijing LGBT Center said in a post, “We are all gay tonight,” alongside photographs of young men and women. While some posts were censored, the hashtag that translates to #Iamgaynotapervert was viewed more than 1.35 million times.
Many activists had harsh words for Sina Weibo, saying that its attempts to limit free speech had gone too far and that gay people were being punished because their culture was considered out of the mainstream.
“Our whole group went ballistic,” said Zhong Xinyue, 22, an intern at the Canton Rainbow Group, an advocacy organization in the southern city of Guangzhou. She lamented the loss of a popular Weibo account called the Gay Voice, which was deleted Saturday.
Even the state-run newspaper The People’s Daily published an article online that included veiled criticism of Weibo’s announcement. The article said that being gay or bisexual was “not a disease,” but it added that gay people needed to “take on their own social responsibilities while advocating their rights.”
Although homosexuality is no longer a crime in China, a conservative culture persists that looks down on people in same-sex relationships. Some textbooks still describe homosexuality as a psychological disorder, and gay characters are rarely shown in movies or on television.
Ma Baoli, founder of Blued, a popular gay dating app, said the country’s lack of sexual education had exacerbated a culture of intolerance.
“It’s easy to aggravate the public’s discrimination against sexual minorities,” said Ma, referring to Weibo’s announcement.
Many activists say they are concerned that Xi’s tightening grip on the internet will dampen a thriving online culture that they say binds the gay community together.
Chen Du, a gay activist in Guangzhou, said Weibo’s campaign would hurt the image of gay people in China and make it more difficult for young people to come out.
“People who are ready to come out are going to be pushed back to where they used to be, faced with pressure and helplessness,” he said.
Under Xi, internet companies have faced pressure to eliminate content that the government deems unwholesome or pornographic — not just politically sensitive — harking back to the days when the Communist Party was an arbiter of public morality.
Xi put in place a stricter cybersecurity law last year that has given the state more power to punish and investigate companies that publish content the government labels unsafe or offensive.
“The cybersecurity law is written so broadly that it provides wide latitude for authorities to claim they are acting in the spirit of the law,” said Paul Triolo, who leads global technology policy analysis at Eurasia Group.
This past week, China’s top media regulator ordered Bytedance, a prominent Chinese technology startup, to shut down an app for sharing jokes and videos, saying it had helped spread vulgar content.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.