Two male celebrities in China kissed on livestream. Were they coming out or queerbaiting?
As the video set the Chinese internet ablaze with excitement and speculation, Chen wrote in a Weibo post: “The only orientation of love is the direction of my heart. We have known each other for a while, and I know him better than anyone else.” In another post, Chen shared a few selfies of Liu and himself. “We still have a long story to tell,” he wrote in the caption.
But not all the reactions were positive. While many praised the pair, others criticized them for being overly affectionate on camera and setting a “bad” example. One of the leading voices in this camp was from Weibo user zǐwǔxiáshì 子午侠士, who has a track record of making controversial remarks on issues of gender and sexuality. “Coming out is not a disease, but it’s sick for someone to feel proud of coming out or promote being gay like a trend,” the person wrote.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, a growing number of celebrities have opened up about their queer identities in the past few years. But in mainland China, because coming out can potentially be a career-ending move in many fields, most queer public figures prefer to stay in the closet. There are some exceptions, though. Last June, Lǐ Yǐng 李影, a member of the Chinese women’s national soccer team, became the first high-profile athlete to openly come out as a lesbian. She was followed by another professional athlete, Sūn Wénjìng 孙文静, a retired national team volleyball player, who publicly declared that she was a lesbian in September.
In addition to the acrimonious morality debate, some people also questioned the authenticity of Chen and Liu’s relationship. One widely circulated comment on Weibo, written by a dedicated fan of Liu’s, accused him of using queerness as a public persona in order to attract public attention. In Chinese, the phrase is zhínán màifǔ 直男卖腐, which literally means “straight man selling rot,” but can be translated as “queerbaiting.” In other words, it describes straight men who pretend to be gay in order to gain popularity. In the comment, the former fan of Liu’s denounced his behavior as “choosing the most repugnant way of becoming famous.”
Zhu Hua (a pseudonym), who is a dānměi 耽美 fan and familiar with fan culture in China, told The China Project that the brouhaha surrounding Liu and Chen should be understood in the context of the Chinese fan economy. As a growing number of TV dramas are adapted from male homoerotic or homo-romantic danmei novels — such as The Untamed (陈情令 chén qíng lìng) and Guardian (镇魂 zhèn hún) — it is not uncommon for straight celebrities to act queer on- or off-screen to attract a certain type of fan who enjoys fictional gay content. The practice of two same-sex public figures faking a romantic relationship is known in Chinese as “炒CP” (chǎo CP), which literally means “stir-frying a couple,” or 卖腐 màifǔ, “selling rot.”
However, Zhu observes that most fans who enjoy watching their idols “stir-fry CP” do not necessarily believe in the authenticity of the romantic relationship, as they draw a strict line between the fantasized “couple” and their idols’ real-world identities as straight men. The exasperation felt by Liu’s previous fan, she said, could be interpreted in two ways.
“When she described maifu as something ‘repugnant,’ it could be read to mean that she only wanted the couple she had imagined to stay in the fantasy world,” Zhu said. On the other hand, many fans see queerbaiting as a tactic that celebrities use to take advantage of fans and benefit from a public hunger for queer representation without actually lifting up the community. “This may also be a fan’s critique of the fan economy; they don’t want to be manipulated.”
Other LGBTQ stories:
A new national survey sheds light on troubling realities facing transgender people in China (Beijing LGBT Center)
The Beijing LGBT Center, an advocacy group serving China’s queer community, recently released the results of a 2021 national survey of more than 7,600 Chinese individuals who identity themselves as transgender. The organization looked at a host of issues and challenges faced by the respondents in a wide range of areas, including mental well-being, access to medical service, employment, familial relationship, and more. According to the survey, more than 61.2% of the respondents have attempted suicide, 40.2% have experienced bullying and violence in school, and 10.7% were unemployed, which was nearly three times the average unemployment rate of the year.
College student’s suicide sparks discussion on discrimination against LGBTQ people (Weibo)
The death of 19-year-old student Gāo Yàn 高彦 at the Shandong College of Arts has been a subject of discussion on the Chinese internet. According to Gao’s friend, before he took his life earlier this month, Gao had suffered from long-term discrimination and bullying from his supervisor at school due to his gay identity. The news has prompted members of LGBTQ communities and activists to demand an official explanation from the college, but many of their posts have been censored on Weibo.
Queer China is our fortnightly round-up of news and stories related to China’s sexual and gender minority population.