How China’s Youtube Became a Rare Safe Space for LGBT Streamers

On Bilibili, LGBT vloggers narrate their lives to millions of fans — but the stories they tell differ radically from their Western counterparts.

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.”

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– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.