By Alex Lambden
Bohemian Rhapsody has just been released in China, but any hints towards Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality have been taken out of the film. The blockbuster hit focuses on the infamous rock group, Queen, and focuses on the life of lead singer and flamboyant bisexual, Freddie Mercury. However, due to the Chinese government’s heavy censorship laws, all references of Freddie’s sexuality have been removed; this includes scenes such as his coming out, his first gay relationship and the group’s portrayal of drag in the ‘I Want to Break Free’ music video. Freddie’s sexuality was a huge part of his life that heavily characterised his story, and by its removal, accusations of China’s systematic homophobia have been raised by Western media. However, the censorship of Bohemian Rhapsody has raised an even deeper political question: should we respect autonomous decisions of governments that fit outside of the Western world’s liberal framework?
As a gay man myself, I believe it is important to first analyse the Chinese government’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights from history until now. Like many ancient cultures, homosexuality in ancient China was a social norm and only became socially abnormal and outlawed in the 19th and 20th century when the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China tried to adopt Western norms. Like many countries who have homophobic social attitudes, these oppressive ideas were learnt from white European countries. Whilst I am not excusing Chinese efforts of censoring LGBTQ+ expression, I believe it is important to remember that China’s homophobic attitudes are due to our imperial influence. For example, homosexuality was normal and accepted in both Native America and Precolonial Africa before the colonialism of European countries. The damage of European colonisation and ideological dominance is difficult to undo, and so in some sense, it would be hypocritical to expect China to instantly reverse their homophobic censorship policies, when these very ideas came from our ancestors.
Of course, it is important to take a look at China’s current constitution towards gay people. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997, and in 2001, it was removed from the official list of mental illness. However, social equality for the LGBTQ+ community has been slow, with a 2016 United Nation Development Program survey stating that only 5% of LGBTI citizens are publicly out with their sexuality. The main problem for China’s slow LGBTQ+ progression is the lack of media representation due to the strict censorship laws, especially again in 2016, when the state administration of all media banned homosexual images on television and in films.
Things also took a turn in 2018 when a popular blogging website called Weibo banned all homosexual content on its website due to being deemed as inappropriate. Nonetheless, the Chinese LGBTQ+ community caused such an outrage that the site reversed its decision within three days. I believe that this shows a promising strength of China’s LGBTQ+, and that their voices are focused and dedicated to making change. ‘One step back, two steps forward’ is a phrase that has always applied to the modern gay movement within the Western world and its long fight for social equality.
For example, if we look at the 1970s, the LGBTQ+ community was thriving more than ever in many Western cities and had created many safe spaces, thus demonstrating social progression for the time. Then in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis hit and the ignorance of Western government caused millions of unnecessary LGBTQ+ deaths, creating systematic regression. Through the AIDS crisis, the LGBTQ+ community was forced to unite and be stronger than ever which caused such a force in changing how gay people were perceived in society and how Western governments should consider them. Whilst social equality is a huge problem in China, I believe it is important to look at the merits of their LGBTQ+ community, and whilst the Chinese government’s views are still greatly oppressive, a strong LGBTQ+ does exist, which is promising for China’s future.
Western governments could also be doing more to pressure China and other countries to remove their homophobic censorship and criminalising laws. It is certain that visible representation of LGBTQ+ will extensively help our freedom fighting siblings on the other side of the world and help to improve their quality of life. Nonetheless, whilst the fight across the globe for true social equality continues, it is very promising to see a strong emergence of China’s LGBTQ+ community emerging fighting against its brutal censorship.