Negotiating equal rights on Weibo? : Internet memes as gay men and lesbians' collective identity articulations in China


As a virtual public sphere, Weibo are also accommodating the discourses of sexual minorities. On December 20, 2019, a hashtag named “Legalization of the homosexual marriage in the Civic Code is proposed” was established on Weibo, which soon attracted users’ attention, then triggered intense public discussion. This is a hashtag with political and socio-cultural implications for both concerned individuals and the public as a whole because the speech by the governmental spokesman clearly reiterated the term of “homosexual marriage”, which confirmed the existence of the identity of gay men and lesbians (LGs) along with their resorts from the state level.

With marginalized attributes in the context of China, the sexual-minority group may deploy a different approach to express themselves, which could set the foundation for their collective identity negotiation because public visibility boosted by social media and authentic narratives are vital for LGs' struggling for civic rights (Yang, 2018).

The aim of this study is to examine how Weibo, afford or shape individuals’ collective narratives, which is recognized as a necessary part for collective identity construction (Melucci et al., 1989). To be concrete, I'm interested in how the authentic expressions collectively articulated through the memetic corpora (organized by hashtag in this study) are afforded or restrained by Weibo. Following that,  the theoretical framework is developed, which is composed of three parts. Firstly, I investigated the relationship between users' expression and platform affordances, then paid exclusive attention on how affordances promote LG’s identity construction while explored the role of Internet meme as an approach. Ultimately, I examined the specific situation in China.

By investigating the collectively articulated narratives by LGs, the article may help explaining how the emerging digital platform in China is creatively utilized by the LGs to boost the visibility of their self-representations and collective identity in the public sphere, which could subsequently promote the digital negotiation over their equal civil rights.

In order to probe into LGs’ collective identity construction, a mixed-methods approach is adopted, which includes quantitative content analysis, critical discourse analysis, and also the in-depth interview with the major actors under the hashtag, “Legalization of the same-sex marriage in the Civic Code is proposed”, a kind of community-defined hashtag and is socially evolved on the social media as a knowledge about sexuality-specific groups (Oakley, 2016).

The initial study reveals that even most of the posts are multimodal, apolitical, and characterized by cheerful and mild tone, certain realistic and angry expressions are obtrusive, which condemned the platforms' censorship and blocking of homosexual-kissing videos, and executed conative communicative functions to call on more actors.

Similarities are also manifested in the embedment of the transnational meme, 'rainbow' emojis, and it acted as a a prominent marker of collective identity facilitate the digital negotiation.

Generally, the earlier findings confirmed the paradoxically antithetical role Weibo played in this event. It facilitated LGs’ collectively creative and authentic articulations while restrained certain narrations that may be treated as “unwelcomed behaviors”.