By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Sina Weibo on Monday reversed a decision to remove gay content after outcry among gay Chinese who say the company had smeared homosexuality by lumping it with pornography as it tried to meet government censorship directives.
China's Twitter-equivalent Weibo said on Friday it would remove pornographic, violent or gay videos and cartoons in a three-month campaign, singling out a genre of manga animations and comics that often depict raunchy gay male relationships.
In response, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates poured online to criticise the decision using hashtags, open letters and even calls to dump Sina shares.
On Monday, Sina said the clean-up would no longer target gay content.
The outcry reflects a fear that growing censorship tends to ban all gay content as "dirty", a setback for efforts to carve out an online space of tolerance for homosexuality in China's traditionally Confucian society, LGBT advocates say.
It was unclear whether Sina's measure was a direct result of a censorship directive from the government or an initiative taken by the company itself. Sina did not respond to a request for comment.
The official People's Daily newspaper of the ruling Communist Party on Sunday encouraged tolerance towards gay people, but added that "vulgar" content must be removed regardless of sexual orientation.
Chinese LGBT advocates hope to promote gay rights by educating society about sexual preferences and pushing back against traditional pressures to marry and have children.
RECLAIMING "BATTLE GROUND" FOR ADVOCACY
Social media is a key "battle ground" where LGBT advocates take on conservative celebrities who dish out popular dating advice, such as saying that the best couples marry early, produce sons and are straight, according to Xiao Tie, head of the Beijing LGBT Centre.
"The problem with the policy is that it equates LGBT content with porn," Xiao said on Sunday, adding that she believes the government is not actively anti-LGBT. Just that it has no clear idea how to deal with the issue.
"But the bigger problem is the culture of strict censorship," she added. "Social media used to be an open space, but in the last year things have started to change."
Sina said the campaign is to ensure that the company is in line with online content regulations released in June last year that lump homosexuality in with sexual abuse and violence as constituting "abnormal sexual relationships".
The fight against Sina's decision saw LGBT groups, advocates and gay Chinese speaking out through letters and hashtags.
The tag "I am gay" was viewed nearly 300 million times on Weibo before being censored on Saturday.
Beijing-based advocacy group PFLAG China on Sunday called on Sina's shareholders to punish the "evil" acts of the NASDAQ-listed company by "voting with their feet" and selling shares.
Other gay Chinese are wrote their own stories in letters to the CEO of Sina, Charles Chao.
Hao Kegui, one such writer, came out as a lesbian in an open letter published on social media last year where she describes how she had felt pressured into marrying a man to please her parents.
"The main concern for me is that, because China is very big, and places outside big cities are quite conservative, there are lots of gay people who only learn about their sexuality online," Hao told Reuters.
"I worry the censorship will cause more people to just live in the closet and never come out."
(This version of the story refiles to correct wording to transgender not transsexual in paragraph three.)
(Additional reporting by Cate Cadell and Pei Li; Editing by Nick Macfie)