After six decades in limbo, China last week passed its first civil code, a wide-ranging legislative package that defines a number of important citizens’ rights. While activists had hoped it would include provisions to legalize gay marriage — particularly as officials acknowledged its inclusion was one of the most requested revisions during the open public comment period for the draft law — Chinese lawmakers ultimately rejected any rules to do so. 

China’s latest setback highlights the continued need to change hearts and minds in the general public through LGBT stories, say activists and filmmakers. Nevertheless, the code’s shortcoming hasn’t hampered the country’s growing demand for LGBT-themed content among increasingly loud and proud gay communities — and the millions of mostly heterosexual female fans of the “boys love” genre, homoerotic stories about gay characters.

As the Chinese film industry enters a new slump due to the coronavirus, some wonder if a silver lining could be that those laid off or unable to start new projects might turn once more to the indie sector, willing again to consider filmmaking for passion rather than profit. 

“Policies won’t change in our current political environment, so the future of LGBT cinema in China will depend on the indie circle, [and] how we can create stories with small budgets but interesting ideas,” says Fan Popo, who now lives in Berlin and is one of China’s few filmmakers openly focused on LGBT content. “If there is a revival of independent films in China, then I believe LGBT films will be part of it. This is my best hope for Chinese LGBT films.”

China has an uneven stance on homosexuality, which is not criminalized but also not legally recognized. Its censors have no clear, comprehensive policy on such content, but it is deemed sensitive and is inconsistently but regularly removed. Same-sex themes are technically banned from appearing on TV and, since 2017, in online streaming. However, subtle content can sometimes make it through — like the Netflix-acquired boys love series “The Untamed,” which became one of last summer’s hottest titles. 

Same-sex moments in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” also made it to the big screen unscathed, yet “Call Me by Your Name” — which has a cult following in China despite never having been officially released — was pulled at the last minute from the Beijing Intl. Film Festival for its gay theme.

When authorities do something like cut out direct references to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the censorship is obvious. But “a lot more of the censorship is invisible — you only learn about it when you talk to LGBT activists who say, ‘We’re trying to put out content, but it’s getting blocked or throttled,’” explains Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center who focuses on LGBT rights in China. “It seems like there’s an effort maybe not to forbid LGBT content but to constrain it and let it exist in a bounded space.”

Explicitly LGBT Chinese films have no commercial prospects: They can’t screen in local cinemas or formally play in festivals abroad. Unable to attract the financing to foot bigger budgets, they’re fated to remain independent, DIY affairs — a gritty style that no longer matches the polished art-house aesthetic of international festivals, Fan laments.

“These days, there are no miracles any more like when [director] Jia Zhangke used a DV camera and got ‘Unknown Pleasures’ — such a low-budget film — into Cannes,” he says. 

But a lack of supply of LGBT stories by no means signals a lack of demand. “It’s a bad time for LGBT cinema, but it’s also a good time,” says Wei Xiaogang, a filmmaker and activist who manages the Beijing Queer Film Festival, established in 2001. “No matter what kind of LGBT film you make right now, people really pay attention, because there’s not a lot of production and they really need those films.” 

China’s thirst for LGBT stories may be most visible to the general public because of the popularity of boys love, but it’s also due to a general shift toward greater acceptance of LGBT citizens — even among gay people themselves. Just a few years ago, it was hard to find anyone who’d agree to even show their face in on-camera interviews, says Wei, but now, “people have become less and less afraid to show who they are.” 

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but we’ve been in the dark for so long that we know you’ve got to make yourself glow, otherwise there’s even less light,” adds Wei, who now lives in Taiwan. “I’m not optimistic, but in this movement, you just have to push.”