The LGBT+ Community and Pride in China
The LGBT+ Community and Pride in China
Although the year of 2020 has seen many large-scale events and celebrations cancelled due to COVID-19, the month of June is still a time of celebration for many throughout the world. Whether a part of the LGBT+ community themselves or allies to the cause, many companies, global governments, and international organizations recognize June as Pride month celebrating the diversity of sexual orientations and the progress of acceptance and inclusivity throughout the world.
Many Westerners now associate Pride and the LGBT+ community with rainbow colored motifs taking over bland corporate logos, parades, and festivals. However, the idea of Pride started as a political demonstration. It is no surprise that in countries with less clear acceptance of LGBT+ rights, many view the topic as still quite political and on the fringe of general society. In China, where so many companies strive to be apolitical in order to give off an air of compliance, it may then seem unusual to observe that in many cases it is the business community promoting awareness of LGBT+ issues and promoting policy change.
The younger generation of consumers and internet users’ value clear brand communication on these issues and have led to positive and negative consequences for businesses taking a stand on LGBT+ topics through their advertising or censorship policies. Now, it is commonplace for corporations and mega-brands to slowly use their position and prevalence in Chinese society to shed light on LGBT+ issues and increase awareness and acceptance of the LGBT+ community in China.
The LGBT+ Community in China at a Glance
Because of the lack of legal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, many people in China choose to keep their identity hidden in order to pursue a “normal life”. This makes it difficult to know how many Chinese people identify as part of the community. In 2006, the Ministry of Health said they estimated that China had roughly 5-10 million homosexuals in mainland China between ages 15 and 65 which would account for less than 1% of their population at the time. Around the same time, China Daily estimated that China had over 30 million citizens identifying as LGBT which accounts for over 2.3% of the population at the time.
A recent UNDP study, “Beijing LGBTI in China”, about sexuality and gender issues in China found that out of all of the respondents that were willing to be interviewed about their experience as a member of the LGBT+ community in China, only 15% had the courage to come out to their families. Most interestingly, the workplace was the last place where Chinese respondents to the survey felt comfortable being open about their sexuality.
These figures are explained in the report through stories of discrimination faced by those who choose to come out. Over half of the LGBT+ persons surveyed reported being unfairly discriminated against directly because of their sexual identity. This unfair treatment leads to higher rates of job instability and unemployment amongst LGBT+ people in China, grave concerns over where to seek medical or mental health services, and fears of emotional and physical abuse from family members who may be unaccepting of their identity.
Perceptions are Changing and Companies are Noticing
However grim these numbers may seem; the perception is changing. Among the youth, there is a much stronger acceptance of LGBT+ issues and initiatives for equal rights. According to the broader survey, over 70% do not support the pathological view of homosexuality or stereotype-based discrimination. Over the past decade, many companies have grasped onto this changing perception themselves and begun changing their policies to lean toward the tide of inclusion. Called the “pink yuan”, many companies have noticed that inclusive policies and advertising has led to an increase in their financial success among young people.
Weibo Ban on LGBT+ Posts Reversed
First an example of a company that learned this the hard way. Sina Weibo, China’s twitter-like platform, came under fire for their corporate policy decision to classify any topics tagged to be LGBT related as forbidden on their platforms in 2018. This decision by Weibo led to a massive outcry from young Chinese users of the platform. The hashtag #IamGay (#我是同性恋) began trending across all Chinese social media after Weibo announced that they would ban all content including pornographic material, violence, or homosexuality. While many youths talked of boycotting the Weibo app, the company felt their decision’s economic weight as well.
This decision caused Weibo’s stocks to fall sharply on the NASDAQ market and lose 7% of its starting value in one day alone. This economic and social hit caused the company to quickly reverse its policy and publicly apologize for grouping homosexual content alongside pornography and violence. After announcing the policy reversal, the Weibo’s stocks saw a 2% recovery.
The example of Weibo made it clear to many companies that drawing the ire of netizens for unfavorable social views could lead to economic losses for their brand. Although Weibo has since become supportive of LGBT+ content and awareness, they came much later to the conversation than other brands in China.
Corporate Marketing Promoting LGBT+ Awareness
Many companies in China took a different route than Weibo and began promoting LGBT+ issues before it was part of the mainstream political and social discussion in China. Through their actions in creating representation for queer Chinese, society in turn became more open and aware of LGBT+ issues throughout the mainland.
Alibaba, e-commerce giant turned super-app in China, has been highlighting LGBT+ couples in their advertising since 2015. In 2015, the Alibaba owned e-commerce app called Taobao collaborated with a gay dating app to sponsor queer Chinese couples traveling to California to get married under the tagline, “As long as you have true love, Taobao will help you realize this dream.” In the same year, Tmall, another Alibaba owned e-commerce app, painted their logo in rainbow colors and added the tagline “love will be enough” which was interpreted by many users as a nod of support to the LGBT+ community in China. This January 2020, Alibaba continued its tradition of supporting the queer community through the inclusion of a seemingly gay couple in a Chinese New Year themed advertisement. In the advertisement, a man brings home his partner to meet his family and enjoy a traditional home-cooked meal during the Spring Festival. The video was widely circulated on social media and led to an extremely positive response from many viewers. Commenters on Weibo, China’s twitter-like platform, commented that this commercial was a “big-step forward” and “inspiring.”
Tencent, parent company of WeChat and many other popular apps in China, has also shown support for the LGBT+ community over the past 5 years. Tencent put LGBT+ friendly messages on social media but took a step further in 2019 during their annual charity day on September 9th. During this charity day fundraising period, Tencent vets projects to be advertised on their donation platform and agrees to match a certain percentage of funds raised for the various causes. In 2019, Tencent approved a funding project led by the Beijing LGBT Center in support of their Transgender Rights Project. This fundraising campaign marked the first ever public campaign on behalf of Transgender issues in China and gave broad exposure to the diversity of China’s LGBT+ community.
Outside of the support from household brands in China, China has also seen a rise in indigenous solutions to promote LGBT+ culture and community across the mainland. Many not-for-profit organizations exist around China and provide support for the LGBT+ community, such as Beijing’s 10-year old LGBT Center. The past decade has also seen the development of successful LGBT+ businesses.
Blued, a gay social networking app founded in China in 2012, is currently ranked as the largest gay app in the world with roughly 40 million registered users. The app has expanded to offer twelve different languages and a program that works on both iOS and Android operating systems. While the majority of the apps users are still in China, the user base has expanded throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas due to their offerings that make them unique to the competition, such as connecting couples longing to be parents with potential surrogates. In 2019, Blued announced their plan for a U.S. initial public offering to seek further overseas investment and to continue developing their brand.
HR Policies towards Inclusion in China
Despite the many public marketing campaigns shedding light on LGBT+ issues, it is still considered “taboo” in many workplaces. In China, the phrase “diversity and inclusion” has not become as commonplace throughout white collar workplaces of the West. Article 12 of the Labor Law of the PRC prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of nationality, race, gender, or religious beliefs. This article does not protect against other forms of discrimination such as gender-identity and sexuality, which are issues at the center of the fight for LGBT+ inclusion.
In the 12th Five-year plan of the PRC, the Chinese government made a commitment to modify the Labor Law and promote inclusion of people with disabilities into the protected classes of individuals. They also created a quota system to ensure that inclusion and employment of people with disabilities actually occurs within large companies and organizations in China. This change creates a precedent for modifying the Labor Law and for furthering inclusion, but there has not been a formal discussion or announcement made to indicate that LGBT+ individuals will earn the same protections.
Companies can have internal policies to promote diversity and inclusion, but in China, where awareness of LGBT+ issues is still in the nascent phase, these policies must also include an aspect of employee education and sensitivity training as well. It is not enough to protect employees from termination based on their sexuality. Employers who value inclusivity must ensure that employees identifying as LGBT+ have access to the same benefits, training, and promotion structures as straight employees.
Research has shown that employers who have diversity and inclusion policies in place provides benefits to management. In addition to the obvious arguments about an enriched talent pool and how diversity fuels more creativity within an organization, employees themselves report being happier and more committed to the company and brand when they work in a business that maintains a strong stance on diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, companies embracing these policies internally, often see the positive perception of their company increasing externally with these changes.
There are many ways in which companies can employ diversity and inclusion initiatives in their business. Although the introduction of the policies poses challenges alongside its many opportunities, companies will grow stronger and more adaptable if they are able to truly put these practices in place and transform into an inclusive employer.
Progress in 2020
As is true in many aspects of China’s contemporary history and development, there have been significant strides made over the past decades. With homosexuality being officially decriminalized in 1997 and officially declassified as a mental disorder in 2001, it is surprising to see such progress in the business community for embracing and promoting awareness around formerly controversial and even illegal ideas.
While same-sex marriage has yet to be legally recognized, China’s top legislative body announced that it had been advised to include the topic in the civil code draft released to solicit public opinions in December of 2019. It is unlikely that same-sex marriage will be legalized in the mainland in 2020, but the public consideration of such a topic shows tremendous progress in the recognition of China’s LGBT+ citizens.
Advocacy organizations around the country remain hopeful that in time, anti-discrimination and marriage equality laws will be enacted into the Civil Code and further protect and recognize LGBT+ citizens. Looking at the release of inclusive national ad campaigns, the success of LGBT+ businesses in China, and the glimmers of policy changes yet to come, there is much to celebrate during 2020’s Pride month in China.