The credits were rolling. Yurui Dai had just finished watching a movie when the QAFONE logo popped up on screen, as it had at the end of every queer movie she had ever downloaded.

It was 2014. Dai was a 15-year-old student in Dalian, China. She was still figuring out her sexuality and, before high school, had never even heard of being gay. Then, she developed a crush on an older female student and began secretly looking online for queer content. That was how she discovered that all the western LGBTQI movies she’d found were subtitled by the same crew: a volunteer group named Queer as Folk (QAF), or 同志亦凡人中文站.

“QAF is really the place where my eyes were opened,” Dai said. “[There] I learned that there are actual people with different sexualities, that people have different likings, and that boys and girls dressing in the opposite way is not a problem at all.” She gradually realized she was bisexual. When Dai went off to college, she joined QAF as a subtitle translator.

In 1994, China’s National Radio and Television Administration — then called the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television — began allowing a limited number of foreign films into the country. As most foreign films were blocked from being screened in China, over time, many Chinese cinephiles turned to the internet for pirated copies. Collectives of unpaid volunteers emerged to write Chinese subtitles for foreign movies and TV. At their peak, “fan subbing” groups like Renren Yingshi 人人影视 and Yidianyuan 伊甸园 had millions of followers on Weibo. QAF was born out of this movement, but unlike the others, the site almost exclusively featured translations of LGBTQI-themed movies and TV shows.

QAF, which resembles a cross between Reddit and an early internet chatroom, started out in 2004 as a message board for Chinese fans of the hit American-Canadian show “Queer as Folk” and grew into a forum for LGBTQI cinema resources. Four years after its launch, the site pivoted to subtitling. Subtitling a movie requires hours of work by a whole team of people. Right now, there are about 120 volunteers, and two-thirds work in translation. Every time a new movie arrives, QAF volunteers form a one-off group, with each member taking on a specific task. This works like an assembly line: one person will translate, another will synchronize, and others will take on graphic design, subtitle embedding, and uploading. Since 2008, coordinated teams of volunteers have translated more than a thousand movies and TV series for QAF, ranging from major English-language studio productions to short films in Hebrew and Vietnamese. The full films, embedded with colorful subtitles, are available for download in the forum. Today, the site has over 700,000 registered users, 60,000 followers on its public WeChat account, and about 1,000 active daily users.

Over the years, QAF established a reputation as the go-to place for LGBTQI content in China. It now functions not only as a place to access foreign queer media but also as a hub of exchange and support in a country where LGBTQI people are still often discriminated against. In the forum, users can freely discuss news, like Thailand’s draft bill that would legalize same-sex unions, and share experiences, like wanting to run away from homophobic parents. “For other communities doing fan subbing, it’s more like a hobby, or a place to share resources,” said Ting Guo, senior lecturer in the department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. But of QAF, she noted, “It’s more like a community.” On average, volunteers spend about a year working on the site, and many stick around to nurture the next generation of subtitlers.

As queer people are very rarely represented in mainstream Chinese media, QAF has shown a generation of LGBTQI people what life can be like in other societies and taught them how to fight for their own right to representation. “It’s not the case [that China’s queer community] is importing things and going, ‘This is the right way to be,’” said Guo’s research partner, Jonathan Evans, senior lecturer in translation studies at the University of Portsmouth. “It’s much more of a negotiation, like ‘How can we use this?’” Sites like QAF and JiHua, which specialized in lesbian content, highlight the challenges that queer communities abroad face, he added, and underscore the similarities. “It is nice to see other people dealing with the same sort of issues, to become more aware of the fact that … it’s not just happening in China.”  

All fan-subbing sites in China have to tread a careful line between building their audience and not drawing the attention of authorities, who could take them to court for copyright infringement. China is the fastest-growing film market in the world, and it’s a top destination for European and American films — some Hollywood productions have grossed four times more in China than in the United States. Still, piracy has flourished, thanks to the National Radio and Television Administration’s quota system, which allows about 40 foreign films into Chinese theaters each year. (In the early 2000s, that number was around 20.) Fed up with the proliferation of stolen content on the Chinese internet, the Motion Picture Association of America named Renren Yingshi, the country’s largest subtitling site, as one of the world’s worst culprits in facilitating access to pirated material, in a 2014 letter to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

At that point, the site was at the height of its popularity, with a reported 2.8 million registered users and 1.8 million unique visitors in a single month. In the ensuing crackdown, authorities seized some of the site’s servers in a coordinated raid, and many other sites, including piracy hub Silu HD, were shuttered for good. While Renren Yingshi has been shut down at least six times in total, since it went back online in 2015, operators have stayed on the right side of the law, and many of its subtitlers now do translations for the country’s legal streaming sites. QAF, meanwhile, has continued its normal practices and simply taken extra precautions to avoid scrutiny.

QAF admins spend a lot of time writing social media posts that don’t contain any “sensitive words.”

Though QAF has managed to avoid copyright-related crackdowns, the site faces additional risk because its content often deals with both queer and sexual themes, which are likely to trigger censors. China’s leadership has adopted what may at best be described as an ambivalent approach toward the country’s LGBTQI community. Though the government has outwardly stated its opposition to discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation, at home, it has a policy of “no encouraging, no discouraging, and no promoting.” As a result, queer people and lifestyles are effectively absent from mainstream media. “Local production is rather limited, with few out-gay films being made,” wrote Guo and Evans of China’s filmmaking culture. In a phone call, Guo added that the government’s approach isn’t always consistent: “At certain periods of time, because of political events or in particular areas, it’s more relaxed; in others, more controlled.”

Caught in this back-and-forth, QAF administrators keep a low profile. They spend a lot of time writing social media posts that don’t contain anything from the authorities’ vague and ever-shifting list of “sensitive words.” After police summoned an administrator for questioning, community leaders rented a physical server in the U.S. to host the website and store their work. They use proxy IP addresses when uploading movies, and, last year, began posting download links under the shared account “QAF manager,” so no single individual would be subject to legal exposure.

In 2009, QAF administrators introduced an invite-only system, meaning that, without a registered account, visitors could see the site but not access much content. “Kenny,” a gay Chinese man who is one of QAF’s top administrators and has worked for the site for over a decade, supported the decision. “This is the most definitive change we’ve made because of copyright concerns,” he said. Rather than trying to appeal to a general audience, he’d prefer to have QAF admins focus their efforts on those within the community.

None of QAF’s volunteers are compensated for their work, and costs are shouldered by a few core members. In the early years, Kenny would spend thousands of dollars annually on DVDs and videos to subtitle, and another long-time admin still covers the server costs, which can exceed $1,000 a year. A few years ago, Kenny was in talks with a Chinese company about developing a subscriber-based Chinese “Gayflix” that would buy the copyright to quality gay content, but the interested company, a prominent player in the pink economy, eventually backed off. “If you don’t have the proper policy environment, all attempts are futile, because capital won’t engage with it,” Kenny concluded.

Being a passion project rooted in social and legal gray areas has advantages and drawbacks. QAF isn’t under pressure from competitors, and it can sometimes take up to two months for a translated film to be posted. Translation is never an exact science, and fan-subbing sites often treat the same work differently. Guo and Evans note a scene in the award-winning 2015 U.S. film “Carol,” in which the main character refuses to renounce her sexuality, saying, “What use am I … if I’m living against my own grain?” While one Chinese fan-subbing site translated the end of the line as “deny my own nature,” another translated it as “couldn’t live as I wish,” emphasizing Carol’s agency and control over her life.

Yet to many members, the community is more meaningful than the product. While there are more LGBTQI organizations in first- and second-tier Chinese cities, they are typically less accessible to people from small towns, meaning that QAF may offer the only means of meeting other queer people. “A subbing group, to some extent, means connections beyond physical boundaries,” said Xiaoxin, a QAF administrator, who operates under an alias. “No matter if you are from Zigong or Tianshui, or if you’re a college student in Lishui, you can always join us.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Xiaoxin was working to make QAF more involved in the offline LGBTQI community. Thanks to his outreach, the organization regularly participated in film festivals and LGBTQI film screenings at foreign embassies. But since the pandemic broke out, virtual connections have become more important. In late June, Love Queer Cinema Week, an annual offline film festival in Beijing, teamed up with QAF to host screenings online, and since the beginning of the year, QAF has registered more than 6,000 new users — already about twice as many as last year.

Still, most new users come across QAF the way Dai did: by randomly watching a movie subtitled by QAF, then another, then a third, and eventually registering. While it has never advertised, QAF remains the most reliable source for queer media on the Chinese internet. This is especially true as the subtitling site JiHua shut down on August 1, after nearly a decade of distributing feminist and lesbian content. QAF administrators say they have made plans to ensure that some of JiHua’s massive media catalogue remains accessible through their channels.

Still, many lament the loss of the community. JiHua’s public WeChat account page read, “We do not only provide subtitles but also produce ideas.” In 2016, a conversation about QAF was taking place on Zhihu, the Chinese version of Quora. In response to a question about his work, Xiaoxin wrote, “Actually I haven’t watched any movie produced by our forum for a long long time.” He explained that he was busy and not as interested in cinema as he used to be. So why did he continue to subtitle? “Because we worry that if we don’t, no one will.”