China has a long tracked record of repressing LGBTQ+ discourse, and with it, fashion brands' opportunities to address them in their campaigns. However, at the start of 2020, sparks of hopes have spawned across different aspects of Chinese lives, sending a positive signal for a more progressive future.
On December 20th, 2019, for the first time in China's modern history, a government law official, spoke about having received a large number of petitions to include “legalization of same-sex marriage” into the Civil Code during a press conference.
Then, on January 8th, 2020, a Chinese New Year-themed campaign from Alibaba's Tmall emerged as a top-trending search across social media. The campaign portrayed a gay couple joining a family reunion. At first, they are greeted with shock from the older parents but are eventually warmly accepted at the dinner table. The campaign received a site-wide applause on the micro-blogging site Weibo, as it was rare for a major company like Alibaba to normalize a same-sex couple in a family context. In the same month, another campaign from the gay social app Blued (a local version of Grindr) aired on the Internet, drawing over 45.7 million views on Weibo. The increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ topics at the start of 2020 posed a sharp contrast to the country's rigid silence of them during the past decades.
Though these advertisements might seem like mild moves to the West, they signal a bold move for China, given the historical contexts. China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and stopped classifying homosexuality as a “psychopathic disorder” in 2001. Though same-sex marriage is still far from sight, the rising volume of LGBTQ+ topics in public discourse is an encouraging sign.
It's hard for fashion players to ignore the potential of LGBTQ+ marketing in China. After all, embracing individual expression is part of fashion's DNA. Modern sexuality manifests itself across the industry's products and marketing in such a profound way that it'd be untrue to take that out of a brand's Chinese narrative. More importantly, China is home to an over 90 million LGBTQ+ population, making it the world's largest LGBTQ+ community. As of 2017, the annual purchasing power of this group amounted to $938 billion. This figure does not include the vast number of straight progressives who would support brands that champion this cause.
Young, cash-rich Chinese consumers, who have contributed much to China’s luxury and fashion's growth in recent years, are more than ready to receive progressive messages. Contrary to their state's conservative stance, the vast majority of Chinese millennials and Gen Z are champions for shifting gender norms and modern relationships. Genderless dressing was the dominant theme at the most recent Shanghai Fashion Week and continues to gain momentum in China's youth fashion. On the e-commerce site Taobao, businesses that cater to help LGBTQ+ couples marry abroad have mushroomed. The progressive youth has also taken this activism online. In April 2018, when Weibo started a gay content crackdown as part of an initiative to clear low-brow content, millions of young netizens boycotted the site so aggressively that Weibo had to withdraw the decision in three days.
Today, it’s both rightful and lucrative to talk LGBTQ+ in China, but it does take tactics.
@Syl排排, a lesbian couple influencer with 82k+ followers on the lifestyle platform Little Red Book, told Jing Daily that blunt wordings would lead to a dead end. She said, “the description of a same-sex relationship can never be too blunt. For example, it's better to use the word 'friendship' to describe a relationship between two women. Direct words like gay, coming out, lesbian and etcetera, are very easy to be spotted, especially when you have a certain size of following.”
Raymond Phang, the Co-founder of Shanghai PRIDE, also adopts “soft wordings” to avoid censorship. “When posing about the Shanghai Pride Festival on various social media channels, Over the years, we use terms that are ‘adopted a cliché,’ such as ‘comrades 同志’ for ‘gay同性,’ and ‘movement运动’ for ‘promotion倡导,’” Phang said.
The same level of scrutiny goes for images. “Showing images of intimacy is risky. While most social platforms do allow kissing photos between a man a woman, intimate photos between same-sex couples risk being censored or blurred,” told the lesbian influencer @Syl排排.
In China, the biggest ideology challenge facing LGBTQ+ population isn't about religion. It is traditional family norms, driven by the fear that homosexual couples can't give birth to children. As a Chinese proverb goes, “there are three ways to be unfilial: the worst is not to produce offspring.” Under this belief, not having children or having a parent-approved partner makes LGBTQ+ population suffer harsh moral judgment from their own family.
According to @Syl排排, homosexual couples challenge China's deeply entrenched family beliefs in so many ways. “Most LGBTQ+ people don't live with their parents, which breaks the tradition of big families all living together. Some parents put a lot of pressure on men to reproduce for the family, which makes the lives of gay men especially hard,” she added.
Zeyi Yang (杨泽毅), an NYC-based journalist who covered China's LGBT+ issues, said that this population faces different struggles than in other societies. “In Western or Islamic states, LGBTQ+ people might face religious judgments from society as a whole. But in China, this population faces judgements from individual families. It's about gaining acceptance from their own family,” Yang said. This emphasis on family acceptance was also the recurring theme of the two same-sex couple campaigns by Tmall and Blued.
In China, homosexuality cannot be promoted nor encouraged. But universal values like inclusion, modern gender norms, diversity, and cultural progress, are widely accepted. It gives room for brands to address the issue without getting shunned.
“To avoid being misinterpreted as promoting homosexuality, some gay rights associations in China geared their communication towards resolving family conflicts. This makes them gain credits for building family harmony,” said journalist Zeyi Yang. Workplace inclusion is another angle to consider. On March 6th, Bytedance, TikTok's parent company, became the first major Chinese firm to call for “more inclusivity in our workplace” in an open letter to its employees, without mentioning a word of homosexuality. Similarly, brands would need to be nimble and agile to go along China's censorship scheme.
Navigating China's ambiguity towards LGBTQ+ issues will not be easy for international brands. But fashion, with its discretionary and progressive nature, has always been the agents of change. The industry is a vehicle for fantasies but also cultural progress. And now is the right time to talk to this long-ignored audience.