Homosexuality is not illegal in China, but the LGBT community still faces censorship on social networks.

Online protests broke out on Chinese social media after a Weibo community page for lesbians was shut down on Sunday. It’s not clear what led to the sudden ban, given that the social network did not censor any other LGBT-related content.

Netizens then took to other related hashtags, including “I am les” and “les super topic is banned”, to protest. The “I am les” hashtag was read more than 290 million times and has drawn more than 600,000 posts.

“Not having a voice means that even dying is quiet,” reads one of the most liked posts under the “les super topic is banned” hashtag.

Weibo’s super topic function is similar to hashtags, but super topic pages allow users to apply to become page moderators, allowing them to promote high quality posts and block bad ones.

By Monday afternoon, the lesbian super topic page was restored.

“Stand firm to your choice and speak out for love,” reads one popular post under the protest hashtag. (Picture: Weibo)

The incident follows a similar trajectory to a ban it tried to implement last year. Weibo announced last April that it would ban a range of “rule-breaking” comics, games and videos, including “pornographic, violent and homosexual” content. It received strong pushback online, with even People’s Daily slamming Weibo’s decision by referencing a textbook that says “there isn’t just one type of sexual orientation.” Weibo then backtracked on the decision, saying it would only target pornography and violence.

China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and declassified it as a mental illness in 2001. But some parts of Chinese society are still reluctant to accept the LGBT community, leading to strict control of homosexual content. Last year, China’s media regulator published a censorship guideline that controversially put homosexuality on a list of banned “abnormal sexual relations or behavior,” which includes incest and sexual abuse.

Weibo isn’t the only social network in China that censors LGBT-related content, either. WeChat users have discovered they are blocked from putting the rainbow flag emoji in their profiles.

This controversial approach to homosexual content even extends to Hollywood. When the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was finally released in Chinese cinemas last month, scenes related to the singer’s sexuality were removed. The censored version is three minutes shorter than the original film, lacking scenes in which Freddie Mercury tells his fiancee he’s not straight and his lover Jim Hutton is introduced. A video streaming platform also changed the subtitles for part of actor Rami Malek’s Academy Award acceptance speech, replacing “gay man” with “special group”.

Although Weibo has backed down from another controversial decision on LGBT content, concerns remain. Netizens say that the lesbian page ban is worse than the gay content ban last year because it wasn't announced in advance this time.

“There wasn't a sound made between the time when the topic was banned and when someone noticed it. Isn’t it terrible? ” one user said on Q&A site Zhihu.