Drag queens and crossdressers: Where straight and queer meet on the Chinese internet

Society & Culture

The presence of drag queens and crossdressers who identify as straight on the Chinese internet is seen as a symbol of LGBTQ representation, helping cultivate tolerance and acceptance. It is also a reminder that Chinese society’s relationship with “queer” is more complicated than meets the eye.

Despite the censorship of LGBTQ and LGBTQ-adjacent content on the Chinese internet, queer people can still find space to increase visibility, though often in subtle, coded ways. In addition to influencers who are openly gay or transgender, there are two other types of LGBTQ content creators who show the diversity of the community in China.

Drag queens on Bilibili

Initially a website themed around the animation, comic, and games (ACG) subculture, Bilibili has grown into one of the major streaming portals in China. While the website used to be considered open-minded and friendly toward queer content — attracting a sizable population of LGBTQ users as a result — Bilibili has become less tolerant of videos related to LGBTQ culture and life in the past few years. To avoid content moderation and account suspension, users have learned to avoid offending words like “homosexuality” or “same-sex couple” in video titles and descriptions, and proactively redact explicit queer scenes from videos. 

There are still many queer content producers on Bilibili despite the platform’s increasing censorship. Leading this cohort of influencers are two drag queens popular with the stage names Niè Xiǎoqiàn 聂小倩 and Lián Lóngqīng 莲龙青Kudos, who go by she/her pronouns while in drag. A typical video from their channels shows them transforming themselves into hyper-feminine, colorful, and theatrical drag queens by putting on complicated layers of makeup, a wig, and costumes.

Drag queen makeovers are common on the Chinese internet — a tradition that has roots in Peking Opera, where men, including the famous and officially celebrated Méi Lánfāng 梅兰芳, played female roles — though different individuals have unique styles. 

Lian’s content conveys a sense of professionalism. In many of her videos, Nie, who has about 950,000 subscribers, meticulously selects and applies variegated colors on her face while explaining in detail the nuanced functions and effects of different products. In her other videos, Lian tells captivating stories as an active drag performer who tours across the country.

In comparison, Nie, who has about 310,000 subscribers, delivers a jovial and humorous personality. One of Nie’s most popular videos, which has more than one million views, is an impersonation of the American rapper Cardi B, who is celebrated among gay communities in China due to her no-filter personality and outspoken takes on social issues. 

Nie also makes video reviews of unusual products, such as fake muscle suits or super high heels. A Shenzhen-based queer researcher (who asked to go by the alias Āzǐ 阿紫) said he really enjoys Nie’s content. “I find her comments on these weird products really amusing, especially when she switches from standard Mandarin to Guizhou accent.” 

Categorized by the website as “fashion bloggers,” Nie and Lian rarely talk about their own gender identity or use hashtags involving LGBTQ terms. However, discussions of queer issues still pop up occasionally in their content. In one video of her impersonating RuPaul, the famous American drag queen, Nie tells viewers that becoming an influencer hadn’t always been her plan. But after her father died of cancer, which put the family in dire financial straits, Nie had no choice but to drop out of school and start building a following as an online personality.

“Crossdressers” on Douyin

While Bilibili is more popular among the youth, Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, reaches a wider range of users. The platform harbors various types of LGBTQ accounts, with “Qiaoqiao in Shanghai” (乔乔在上海 Qiáoqiáo zài Shànghǎi) being a special case. 

Describing himself as a “crossdresser” who still identifies as a man, Qiaoqiao, now in his mid-40s, is hugely popular on Douyin, where he’s gained nearly 2 million followers by posting a steady stream of photos and videos of him going about life in feminie clothing. 

One might find it strange to see Qiaoqiao’s wife and daughter making regular appearances in his videos, but the crossdresser exhibits strong confidence with his unconventional gender expression. In one video, he wears high heels to work and recalls a conversation with his mother: “My mom is so funny. She said I consume better nutrition than her, which is why I am strong enough to wear high heels in my 40s while she found it impossible to put her feet into shoes like these when she was my age.”

Qiaoqiao’s status as an “LGBTQ influencer” is murky, but Azi said he was impressed by how comfortable Qiaoqiao seems to be in his own skin. “He is so comfortable when crossdressing in front of his family members and his followers,” Azi said. “I understand that he doesn’t identify as gay or transgender, but I don’t think he is completely free from prejudices or controversial comments when posting about his life online.” 

While some comments on Qiaoqiao’s videos express displeasure with his lifestyle and tell him to dress like a man, the vast majority are positive and friendly. Under the above-mentioned video, one comment reads, “You are lucky to have a mother and a wife who are open-minded.”

A long-time follower of Qiaoqiao, Azi suspects that most of Qiaoqiao’s fans are straight people. “In fact, a large group of them seem to be middle-aged mothers living in small cities or even rural areas,” he said. “I think they see Qiaoqiao’s passion for crossdressing as a personal choice, something like his own hobby, rather than an identity or a social issue.”

Seeing Qiaoqiao find fame on Douyin reminded Azi of the television star Jīn Xīng 金星, who is the first person in China to openly undergo gender-affirming surgery but rarely speaks about being a trans woman or advocating for trans rights. Azi noted that the popularity of Jin and Qiaoqiao illustrates the complicated relationship between straight spectators and queer-like public figures: “Just like the middle-aged women who love watching Jin Xing, Qiaoqiao’s followers may not fully understand his life, but they are moved by his confidence and optimism, and even find some of his words relatable to their own life as women.”

Other LGBTQ stories:

Why workplaces in China should be proactive in the fight for LGBT+ equality | Bath Business and Society

LGBTQ people face various challenges regarding workplace inclusion and diversity. This article introduces a few transgender people’s life stories while reviewing the current situation.

Seven LGBTQ mothers’ stories | Beijing LGBT Center (in Chinese)

Beijing Tongzhi Center reviews a documentary series made by the director Ashley. Titled HovERing, the series features the life stories of seven mothers who have LGBTQ children, showcasing how they came to terms with their children’s sexual and/or gender identity. The documentary videos are available for streaming on Bilibili

A story of my Gender Reassignment Surgery | Guoke Health (in Chinese)

Guoke Health, a health knowledge platform, posts a transgender person’s first-person narrative of her exploration of gender identity and her pursuit of gender reassignment surgery in Thailand.

Online events on workplace inclusion and diversity | DEI Series 

A series of online events organized for Pride Month to discuss and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among LGBTQ people in the workplace.

Queer China is our fortnightly round-up of news and stories related to China’s sexual and gender minority population.