Lush Grass, Regrows in Spring: Queer Lala Times as Feminist and Queer Media in China.
Whereas the surveillance of the nation-state and the influence of Confucian notions of family inherence continue to shape the Chinese non-normative gender and sexual identities (Bao, 2018, p. 40), a rising number of Chinese LGBTQs advocate for equal rights in public, and some of them have attracted international attention in the past five years. Yang Teng, a gay man, made a lawsuit against a notorious counseling center in the Southwestern city of Chongqing for having given him electric shocks to change his sexual orientation (Levin, 2014). Chen Qiuyan, a university student in South China, became the nationwide headline because she failed in her lawsuit of demanding education officials to remove textbooks that describe homosexuality as a sickness (Buckley, 2015; Li & Li, 2016; Qiu, 2017). A gay couple in Hunan province lost the lawsuit of attempting to marry in the country's first same-sex marriage case (Phillips, 2016). Mr. C, a transgender man in the Southwestern province of Guizhou, sued his former employer for workplace discrimination - the first transgender employment discrimination case in China (Lai, 2018). Collectively, these cases deliver a clear message: LGBTQs in China still lack significant equal rights in economics, political, and cultural lives.
The above news stories might connote that non-normative genders and sexualities have "come out of the closet" and entered into the public eye in China, nevertheless, not all members within the umbrella term of "LGBTQ" share the same visibility and policy support. Internal difference exists: gay men are more visible in China, partly due to Internet popular cultures. In China's online sphere, danmei, the Chinese term for boys' love literature, has contributed to the imagination of homosexual male couples. Netizens adept at obtaining resources have disseminated overseas movies and TV series that depict same-sex male romances explicitly or implicitly, such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), Happy Together (1997), Sherlock (2010-) and Queer as Folk (2000-2005), familiarizing the general public on the notion of gay sexuality. In terms of policy support, gay men organizations enjoy privileges as many of them cooperate with national and/or local governments' HIV/AIDS programs.
Compared to their gay men counterparts, lesbian communities in China often go hand in hand with feminist organizations. At the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, "lesbian rights are human rights" became an outspoken statement (Dixon Place, 2015). In recent years, the Youth Feminist Action School (YFAS) has demonstrated their productive actions in public engagement and advocacy work, such as "Occupying Men's Bathrooms" (in protest over China's toilet inequity) and "Beautiful Feminist Walk (a protest against sexual abuse to promote women's freedom). YFAS is not an organized feminist group, but a title for any young people in China who believe in and work on women's rights. Before the International Women's Day in 2015, the Chinese police detained five YFAS activists (known as the Feminist Five) for their anti-sexual harassment advocacy, which arose global attention and anger, with Hillary Clinton speaking out on their behalf and activists inundating social media with #FreetheFive messages (Hong, 2018). However, internal tensions exist; YFAS rarely put their sexuality at the forefront of their activism (Tan, 2017b, p. 183).
Additionally, since the late 1980s, Western feminist and queer theories started to travel to China by the translation of a few scholars, despite that quite rare universities in China have set up gender and women's studies programs and courses (Yau, 2010; Zeng, 2016), hindering the dialogue of China's intelligentsia and the global world (The Paper, 2018). Compared to the conservative university curricula, the Internet has boosted feminist theories and discourses, particularly in the past few years, inspiring young women in China to reflect upon not only their personal struggles - like employment discrimination, forced marriage (bi hun), reproductive coercion, etc. - but also the structural problems in the patriarchal society (The Paper, 2018). Queer theory, originally introduced to China by sociologist Li Yinhe in the 1990s, has not become a legitimate academic topic in mainland China (Tan, 2017a). Nevertheless, lesbian and queer women grassroots activists adopt queer theory as a movement strategy to promote the social constructionist view of gender identity and sexual orientation. By contrast, gay men organizations often do not emphasize queer theory, supporting the essentialist view.
The internal conflicts within LGBTQ communities in China reached a peak in 2011 and 2012. An anonymous user established a Sina Weibo account with the name of Sailor Moon Lala (mei shao nu zhan shi la la) that called attention of controversial issues and problems in China's gay movement, signifying the opening of debates in the gender/sexuality realm. With the belief that the marginalized position of lesbians in equal rights movements has the potential to make a breakthrough in the gender/sexuality realm, Sailor Moon Lala promoted queer theory (as opposed to essentialism) and highlighted feminism awareness in LGBTQ politics.
Queer Lala Times (QLT) emerged in such a context. In the year of 2013, a group of lesbians and queer-identified women launched an electronic publication called Queer Lala Times (QLT). Its Chinese name is "ku la shi bao." "Ku la" means "queer lesbian"; "shi bao" means "Times," suggesting a nature of media that discusses current affairs. The name of QLT demonstrates a pioneering spirit because it makes the concept of "queer" visible. QLT is under the framework of Chinese Lala Alliance (CLA; http://lalalm.org/)--a regional network of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LBTI) grassroots organizations and activists in the Sinophone societies. CLA does not work on issues related to gay men. Instead, its mission is to make voices for disadvantaged gender communities, including lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender people who are emotionally attached to women etc.
Though QLT sets the head office in the Great Pearl River Delta, its readership covers mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan,and other global Sinophone-speaking communities. It uses multiple social network sites to reach various audiences, i.e., WeChat, Sina Weibo (https://weibo.com/queerlalatimes?refer_flag=1001030101_), Douban (https://site.douban.com/211878/), and Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/QueerLalaTimes/). On WeChat, QLT has established a Readers' Group of around 250 members as an online private space for individuals to share opinions, attitudes, and debates about women's rights and queer movement, as well as a space for them to safely share their confusions about gender and sexuality issues in daily lives. Initially, QLT had a WeChat public account under the name of "ku la jun" (queer lala person) to publish articles and engage with readers who subscribe to the account, yet the account was shut down from June to December in 2017. Afterwards, QLT established a new WeChat public account with the name "ku la xue tang." Sina Weibo, known as the Chinese version of Twitter, welcomes heated debates from netizens on public issues. Douban, a website for users to share similar hobbies, is a platform for QLT to classify its important published articles in a clean and simple design. As an electronic journal based in mainland China, QLT also utilizes Facebook to distribute significant information to its overseas readers, particularly to those in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In China, the year of 2013 witnessed a growing number of grassroots organizations utilizing emerging digital technologies - particularly WeChat and Sina Weibo - to achieve their political goals, even though "civil society" (gong min she hui) became a forbidden term almost simultaneously. The birth of QLT, signifies not only a type of digital activism in China's feminist and LGBTQ identity politics, but also grassroots creative practices from Chinese citizens negotiating with uncertainties in the socio-political climate. Why is QLT important in China's feminist and queer movement? How does QLT operate and function as an organization different from mainstream mass media? What kinds of struggles and hopes does QLT have in its activism? Taking QLT as an example, this article aims to offer insights on understanding Chinese feminist and queer media's progressive and creative practices, as well as challenges and wisdoms to survive in an uncertain era.
The Politics of Recognition: Digital Activism, Queer Media, and Censorship
The emergence of QLT is primarily a response to unbalanced power within LGBTQ movement from lesbians and queer-identified women. This concerns the politics of recognition, which is a vital human need linked to the pursuit of dignity and a democratic culture of equality (Taylor, 1994, pp. 26-27). A key concept in the politics of recognition is the politics of difference (Taylor, 1994, pp. 38-43), referring to the significance of recognizing the minority in minority groups, and the diversity within the minority groups. In this sense, when gay men dominate the LGBTQ movement, marginalized identities such as lesbians urge a change in power unbalance.
This section offers the background information about queer activism in the following three aspects: online activism, queer media, and censorship. Online activism refers to contentious activities and collective actions associated with the use of the Internet and new communication technologies that promotes, contests, or resists change (Yang, 2009, p. 3). Identity politics is one category of online activism, referring to the struggles for recognition and the protest against discrimination (Yang, 2009, p. 4).
To express needs and make voices, members of Chinese LGBTQ communities have utilized both traditional media and new media technologies in forms of magazines, journals, films, documentaries, and webcasts, etc. (Tan, 2016; Bao, 2018). Friends Exchange, Les+, and GaySpot were among the most known LGBTQ traditional media before the rapid growth of social media and the trend of media convergence in China's mediascape. Chinese government does not regulate the Internet as stringently as it regulates traditional mass media, turning the Internet into a main arena for LGBTQ movement (Deklerck & Wei, 2015, p. 18). For example, Queer Comrades (http://www.queercomrades.com/en), an LGBT-focused webcast started in 2007, conveys the importance of activism in their programs. The program calls out audiences to actively contribute to the LGBT movement and empowers people by emphasizing a positive LGBT identity (Deklerck & Wei, 2015, pp. 31-32).
Despite its comparative loose monitoring, the occasional and unpredictable governmental censorship has brought uncertainties to LGBTQ activists and cultural producers. Activist and filmmaker Popo Fan (2015) indicated that, in 2001, the police forced to close the first Beijing Queer Film Festival (p. 81). The police also shut down the Beijing Gay and Lesbian Culture Festival scheduled to take place in 2005; the organizers and participants risked police detention and questioning. To circumvent censorship, between 2008 and 2011, queer filmmakers initially restricted the promotion of China Queer Film Festival Tour within small circles like mailing lists and mobile messages, though it later received publicity via online bulletin boards and social media (Fan, 2015, p. 82). In 2014, Beijing Queer Film Festival went even more underground than in previous years as a result of tightening governmental censorship (Tan, 2017a, p. 137). To reduce the risk of being interpreted as political by the authorities, it is not uncommon that queer cultural producers adopt the strategy of understating intellectual discussions, as Queer Comrades has showed (Deklerck & Wei, 2015, p. 33). Similar with its predecessors, QLT as queer media has both opportunities and challenges associated with digital activism.
Activist Media, Participatory Media, and Autonomous Media
Activist media, participatory media, and autonomous media are closely linked concepts that can describe media practices from civil society groups. The notion of activist media refers to media forms that serve activist purposes (Clark, Erdener, Ferrari, & Yang, 2017). Independent websites, discussion lists, and personal websites in the early days of the Internet were forms of activist media. Emerging social media sites in the 21st century such as Facebook, Twitter, and Sina Weibo, have the characteristics of activist media because citizens or civil society groups can utilize them to make political claims (Clark et al., 2017).
The concept of participatory media refers to media platforms in which audiences are able to generate and disseminate content, blurring the roles of creator and audience, maker and user, producer and consumer (Chandler & Munday, 2016). To define media as participatory, the production process is of primary importance, but the goal, technology, organizational process, and political economic structure are also involved (Wilkins, 2011, p. 388). With the goal of social justice, participatory media often battle oppression and promote social change via grassroots collective action. Participatory media tend to have interactive technologies, bringing out the potential for dialogic opportunities and hierarchical flows of information. To make proper use of technology, participatory media creators usually have to appropriate the technology within particular cultural settings. The organizational process of participatory media expects the community likely to benefit to be constituents of the media production team, for creating accessible content and sharing power. The political economic structure of participatory media not only welcomes democratic acts by encouraging both listening and speaking, but also involves the question of funders' agenda (Wilkins, 2011).
Autonomous media theory focuses its attention on practices of autonomy. Independent from hegemonic institutions such as governments, corporations, and religious groups, autonomous media reject and resist racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia (Uzelman, 2012, p. 72). Uzelman (2012) discussed five characteristics of autonomous media. First, the organizational form encourages participatory and/or communicative practices of governance and content production with the aim of destroying hegemony and oppression. Second, the mode of governance is not confined to formal media organizations. Aided by the Internet, autonomous media are able to build the connections among different communities and between communities and technologies. Third, the production process of autonomous media is participatory, with the potential to disrupt the hierarchy of knowledge (who has the authority to speak), the hierarchy of expertise and capacities to make valid meanings (who is authorized to create media content), and the hierarchy of form and genre(the ways of speaking and representing traditionally privileged as authoritative). Fourth, autonomous media encourage audiences to see themselves as producers and even as managers rather than solely as observers or consumers of media content. Fifth, by fostering a less mediated relationship to media, autonomous media's participatory process can provoke new relations of freedom in terms of professional norm (pp. 74-77).
The three concepts have overlaps in meanings, though the emphases are different. Media organizations defined as activist media are likely to prioritize their political goals, which matches the second characteristics of participatory media. The concept of participatory media sees the production process with a blurred boundary between the creator and the consumer as a central feature. While the notion of autonomous media also discusses the production process and organizational structure, it differs from the concept of participatory media because it prioritizes the independence from hegemonic institutions. These concepts are useful in examining the practices of QLT. In the title of this article, I describe QLT as activist media because I see the political aims as the central feature of QLT. In my findings section, besides a discussion on QLT as activist media, I examine QLT under the framework of the five characteristics of autonomous media theory. I do not use the notion of participatory media in the findings, because QLT's participatory culture is revealed among the five features of autonomous media.
This article is based on a case study of QLT, building its qualitative analysis on empirical data. I interviewed chief editors and readers of QLT, as well as analyzed QLT's documents. I see myself as an "activist scholar" that Pickard and Yang (2017) call for (p. 29). On studying QLT, I am both an "outsider" and "insider" (Bao, 2018, pp. 16-19): an "outsider" affiliated with and funded by an U. S. academic institution; an "insider" as a native Chinese who has a record of casual participant observation experiences at LGBT centers and events. From 2013 to 2014, I volunteered to translate and write articles for QLT. When working on this study, I am no longer a volunteer as I was. Nevertheless, my former involvement facilitated the rapport establishment and the data collection.
My data collection started with the statement of QLT. Datou (n. d.), a QLT editorial board member, wrote the statement. In addition to her advocacy in feminism and queer rights, she is a writer who publishes regularly on prominent national and international media. The statement she wrote for QLT exhibits criticisms towards China's LGBTQ movement and contains jargons. To ensure a thorough understanding of the statement, I highlighted the keywords and prepared to discuss with my interviewees.
I pay particular attention to my interviewees' privacy for ethical concerns. The two chief editors I interviewed are Dian Dian and Fireworks. Dian Dian, the chief editor from May 2013 to June 2016, prefers to use her real name in this article. Fireworks is a pseudonym provided by my interviewee to protect her privacy. I interviewed Dian Dian three times. The first one, in 2016, was a telephone interview about general questions and histories on QLT. The second one, in 2017, was an email interview on QLT's organizational forms. During June 2017 and July 2018, QLT experienced a censorship incident and a name-change. Therefore, in my third interview with Dian Dian, a face-to-face one, I asked her questions related to the censorship and name-change. Fireworks' term of office has overlaps with the time frame of censorship and name-change. I then interviewed her to get more details via WeChat voice call. Both Dian Dian and Fireworks gave me historical materials of QLT for my reference. Besides, I interviewed four QLT readers: two women, two male feminists.
To select QLT's articles, I initially copied and pasted all the titles of articles that QLT published from May 2013 to July 2018, available from QLT's Douban site. In total, there are 352 articles under 17 categories. After reading the statement and the interview transcripts, I gained a sense of QLT's core values and selected articles that best exemplify them.
To analyze data, I coded for repetitive patterns and discovered themes in the statement, interview transcripts, and the articles I selected. The following is the summary of my interviewees' views and my analysis of the documents, including how QLT functions as feminist and queer activist media, operates as autonomous media, and survives after a censorship incident.
Notes on Terminology
I did interviews in Mandarin. QLT's articles are mainly published in Mandarin Chinese. In the findings section, all the translations from Chinese to English are mine. The gender and sexuality terms that my interviewees use have special meanings in Chinese. Some meanings are likely to get lost when translating the terms into English. I thus use pinyin to keep the original Chinese terms my interviewees used. This also follows with the practices of former scholars who study Chinese queer cultures (e.g., Bao, 2018; Engebretsen, Schroeder, & Bao, 2015; Kam, 2013; Tan, 2017a). "Ku'er," similar with "queer" in English, is a noun or an adjective to refer to non-normative genders and sexualities. "Tongzhi" similar with "gay" in English, theoretically, refers to both gay men and lesbians. However, in practice, the term "tongzhi" is often only associated with gay men, making lesbians invisible. To distinguish from gay men, Chinese lesbians often prefer to use terms specifically referring to lesbian identity, such as "nutongzhi" or "lala."
QLT as Feminist and Queer Activist Media
I see QLT primarily as activist media because of its political aims, i.e., making voices for marginalized communities in the LGBTQ movement. Seeing diversity as a core value, QLT demands the recognition of invisible identities under the umbrella term "LGBTQ," i.e., lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer.. The pursuit of diversity is primarily reflected in QLT's statement:
We are lala; we are not dissoluble under the umbrellas of "women," "gay," "homosexuality." We are queer; we are not content with the binarism of gay/straight, men/women, normal/pervert. We seek diverse narratives that speak to the complexity of the world, and we seek a more diverse reality (Datou, n. d.).
In Dian Dian's words, some lesbians feel marginalized in organizations dominated by gay men and experience gay men's lack of feminist and gender awareness in everyday conversations. The value of diversity highlights not only diverse genders but also the recognition of diverse social economic statuses. Dian Dian raised a question about social class: "How is the Western-style of marriage equality - a common vision for tongzhi communities - connected to the needs of Chinese tongzhi with lower socio-economic status?"
Dian Dian's narrations are similar to a QLT article titled "Standing at the Margin of the Marginalized" (zhan zai bian yuan de bian yuan). In this article, Datou (2013) discusses why lesbians need to join the feminist movement. After interviewing over 30 lesbians, Datou pinpoints and criticizes the traditional society's gender disciplines to expect women to be "docile" (wen shun) and "tolerant" (ren nai). She then believes that, compared to the elimination of sexual orientation discrimination, it is of greater significance for women to emancipate themselves from the inner heart as well as to form independent and strong personalities. As Datou said,
Gender discrimination in workplace recruitment and university admissions, preference given to boys rather than girls (zhong nan qing nu), gender-based violence in verbal, insufficient public toilets, and pressure of getting married, etc.--these are lesbians' life experiences as women. Let alone the pressure of gender disciplines (e.g., how women should be like). Lesbians thus indeed need to join the feminist movement. (Datou, 2013)
Fireworks believes that, there must be an intersection between feminism and queer: "Every aspect in life is in relation to gender and sexuality. Feminism (Nuquan) has a focus on gender and sexuality; ku'er is the same. They must have an intersection."
QLT emphasizes the concept of intersectionality in feminist and queer politics. As Dian Dian explained:
It (QLT) originally wants to stress the intersection of identity. Meantime, it stresses the intersected identity and the reflection on identity.... The intersected identity refers to lala. The reflection on identity refers to ku'er. They coexist. Lala is an intersected identity. But the concept of ku'er refers to the ambiguity of identity as well as the challenge and reflection on it.
Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), describes multiple oppressions based on gender, sexuality, class, religion, disability status, etc. QLT's articles shed light on the hybrid identities that are often invisible: queer Christians, intersex, transgender, bisexual/pansexual, and lesbians who are in lower socioeconomic statuses.
QLT as Autonomous Media
QLT's organizational form, governance mode, production process, relationships to audiences, and professional norms, match the characteristics of autonomous media defined by Uzelman (2012). The organizational form contains three levels: the first one is the editorial board, following with the chief editor, and then the volunteer group. About ten people are on the editorial board. They are activists, journalists, and scholars who concern about feminism and LGBTQ rights. They participate QLT's most important decision-makings, including the statement, the topics, and the professional norms. Among the three levels, only the chief editor gets paid for work. The chief editor examines QLT posts, supervises volunteers, and consults the editorial board in face of a sensitive or uncertain topic. The volunteers take up concrete tasks in the content production, such as designing, reporting, and translating. QLT's low budget makes it unable to pay authors. Most QLT articles are the voluntary contributions from scholars specialized on feminist and queer theories, activists with grounded advocacy experiences in China, and volunteers who share QLT's mission. Moreover, the editorial board serves as a link between the chief editor and CLA; if the chief editor is not competent, the editorial board will report to CLA, but it is CLA that decides to dismiss or not (see Figure 1).
At first sight, QLT's organizational form seems vertical, but in practice, it is more horizontal. QLT adopts a loosely-structured governance mode. After all, neither the editorial board nor the chief editor could mandate volunteers to work. The power distribution is horizontal, bringing flexibility and negotiability. If there is a QLT community discussion relevant to the general public, QLT will publish an article to disseminate the discussion to wider audiences. For example, during the 2014 spring festival, some QLT members chatted about queer people's spring festival experiences. QLT then collected the narrations and published an article (Queer Lala Times, 2014).
QLT's production process and relationships to audiences suggest that it aims to build a democratic and participatory culture. To disrupt hierarchies of knowledge, QLT allows its readers to be not just content consumers but also content producers. Readers can contribute articles to QLT: among all the 352 articles, readers contributed 58 of them (16.5%). Readers can also comment QLT's articles; QLT reposts and highlights high-quality comments. Besides, QLT has designed special topics to engage with readers, such as "zuo shang lai" and "yue qi lai." The WeChat Readers' Group, consisted of about 250 members, is a safe space to share opinions, confusions, and stories. Moreover, QLT has held offline activities to meet with readers face-to-face, such as Readers' Camp (du zhe ying) and "True Person Library" (zhen ren tu shu guan). Interestingly, after joining such events, some participants began to volunteer for QLT (see Figure 2).
Anti-discrimination, anti-violence, and diversity are QLT's professional norms. In the Reader's Group, QLT does not tolerate any discriminatory voice or verbal violence based on gender identity, gender expression, age, and social-economic status. QLT's professionalism is also manifested in its attention to use accurate pronouns to refer to gender-nonconforming people, such as transgender persons. In China, gender diversity has neither become a common awareness in mainstream mass media nor a mandatory topic in journalism education. In this sense, the correct use of pronouns suggests that QLT is at the forefront of media representation on LGBTQ communities.
My analysis also offers a new perspective on activist media, participatory media, and autonomous media: the community leader as an opinion leader. Despite the fact that QLT spares efforts in creating a democratic culture and a horizontal structure, its survival or not relies greatly on the community leader's charisma. Three chief editors have worked for QLT from 2013 to 2018. Dian Dian, the first one, has been a feminist and LGBTQ activist for about 10 years and often receives interviews as a community opinion leader. The second chief editor, who was in position from July 2016 to July 2017, did not enjoy similar community recognition. Dian Dian, Fireworks, and a reader all implied to me that, since the second chief editor took office, QLT's articles declined in quality. QLT's Douban site suggests that, the quantity of articles also dropped dramatically in this period. In addition, the second chief editor miscommunicated with the volunteer group, partly due to cultural differences. Educated in the U. S., the second chief editor only used email to contact volunteers; while most volunteers are based in mainland China, making WeChat a preferable channel. Fireworks said to me, "From then on, it became a problem that the volunteers were leaving." Afterwards, CLA dismissed the second chief editor. This example highlights the significance of the community leader's charisma and leadership style for an autonomous organization.
On June 26, 2017, among WeChat's circles, the QLT community spread a screenshot, containing the information "Your visit to the site is stopped and restricted. The site has received too many complaints. The site has illegal behaviors." QLT's WeChat public account was blocked (See Figure 3).
community spread a screenshot, containing the information "Your visit to the site is stopped and restricted. The site has received too many complaints. The site has illegal behaviors." QLT's WeChat public account was blocked (See Figure 3).
However, the censorship did not impress all QLT supporters. I approached four readers in August 2018. They all admitted their little impression on the censorship incident. A reader who self-identifies as "Fang," a male feminist, shared his feelings and observation:
I felt both astonished and angry. But in the past two years, more and more gender-related public accounts have been closed. It looks like a new normality.
Half year after the censorship incident, QLT set up a WeChat public account with the name "Ku la xue tang" - in English, it means "Queer Lala College," yet it keeps "Queer Lala Times" as the English name in its logo. Fireworks agrees with me that, this name-change not only shows a mission to promote queer knowledge, but is also a strategy to circumvent censorship. "Xue tang" - in English, "college" - is the place where teachers deliver knowledge to students; the original title with the word "Times" explicitly suggesting a message of media might attract the attention of the surveillance institutions. On the new WeChat public account, "Ku la xue tang" has modified the agenda, aiming to promote knowledge on feminism and queer theories. As its new introduction goes, "We are devoted to build a unique Chinese queer voice-making community and share information, opinions, and stories that are interesting and amusing."
In the 35-minute interview, Fireworks used the word "fu huo" (resurgence) for five times to refer to QLT's re-emergence and resilience after the censorship incident. In my interview lasted about 35 minutes, Fireworks used the word "fu huo" (resurgence) for five times to refer to QLT's re-emergence after the censorship event. This reminds me of Chinese poet Bai Juyi's lines, "Wildfire does not burn the lush grass completely--it regrows when spring winds blows" (Ye huo shao bu jin chun feng chui you sheng), a metaphor to encourage the oppressed (like the grass) to never give up in face of adversity (like the wildfire). In 2018, QLT stood up as an ally for the victims of sexual harassment at the significant moment of China's #MeToo movement, and, when Feminist Voices was blocked, QLT spoke out its voice "we won't stop our steps."
In this article, I have discussed the significance of QLT as a feminist and queer activist media in China, examined how it operates and functions as autonomous media, and presented its struggles and strategies to navigate uncertainties and circumvent censorship. To conclude, I discuss this study's potential limitation, theoretical contribution, and future directions.
The primary limitation concerns how I address my relationship with interviewees. My identity as both an "insider" and "outsider" at Chinese queer communities indeed created convenience for me to approach QLT, but this connection is a double-edged sword that also put me at the risk of being biased. To maintain my relationship with QLT, I could not have interviewed every key person at QLT, particularly the second chief editor and the readers. My analysis of QLT is limited to what resources I obtained as well as whom I approached.
However, this study has two theoretical contributions. First, it offers insights to understand the intersection between the feminist and queer movements in China. This is not only a rarely talked-about topic in earlier research on China's online queer cultures (e. g., Cao & Lu, 2014; Sun, 2010), but also, as Tan (2017b) implied, an ignored reality in studies on feminist media activism in China. I have shown that, QLT emerged in a context of the division within the Chinese LGBTQ community: not only the marginalization of lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender, but also the lack of feminist awareness in communities dominated by gay men. This historical specificity complicates and challenges the notion of a universal LGBTQ rights agenda. Feminism, as a theoretical tool that aims at liberating not only women but also members of all genders, sexual orientations, and social-economic backgrounds, connects all the individuals who are oppressed by the society's definition of normative identity. In this sense, feminism, despite facing hostile attitudes from the government, has the potential to bring about revolutionary effects in China.
Second, this study renews our understanding of digital activism--i.e., the possibilities and restrictions of digital technologies to bring about social changes. I have shown that, social networking sites, such as WeChat, Sina Weibo, Douban, and Facebook, do provide opportunities for low-budget activists to have creative practices; however, their advocacy relies on not just internal wisdoms of the community, but also a good sense of navigating the socio-political climate, which needs strategy and wisdom, as the fact that China's Internet is already the world's most centralized by far (The Economist, 2018, p. 9).
For those who are interested in studying China's queer cultures, I suggest two future directions. First, what are other under-explored gender and sexual identities, such as bisexual, transgender, and intersex? In an encyclopedia entry I have introduced the development of transgender organizations in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in the past two decades (Yu, 2019). What I have found is that, the Internet has played a significant role in transgender visibility, yet transgender issues have not become a public inquiry. How have transgender people in China utilized the Internet? How does transgender online visibility intervene into Chinese society's binary definition of male and female? Scholars can do research to answer such questions.
The second direction concerns the question: "is digital technology omnipotent?" As Bao (2018) argued, how digital divide influences Chinese LGBTQs is unexamined. Current literature on queer Chinese cultures (e.g., Bao, 2018; Engebretsen, 2014; Ho, 2010; Kam, 2013; Rofel, 2007) is primarily focused on well-educated and/or affluent LGBTQs in global cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Urban poor and rural LGBTQs are invisible in literatures. While Western scholar like Gray (2009) has examined how queer youth in rural America utilizes online spaces to express queer identities, there is almost no research on China's rural queer communities. Where are urban poor and rural LGBTQs in China? How do they utilize communication technologies? The answers might go beyond a simple assumption that digital technology is accessible or not to them. The popularity of digital services in rural China, such as kuaishou, pinduoduo, and taobao's rural strategy, (despite not focused on gender and sexuality), has demonstrated the vitality of communication technologies. In China's modernization, urban-rural relation is a main social problem (sometimes a conflict). The migration from countryside to city is also a trend difficult to reverse. Future researchers can depict a picture of the relationship between queer cultures and digital technologies from the perspective(s) of urban-rural relation and/or migration.
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Yang Yu, Temple University, USA
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|Publication:||China Media Research|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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