In August last year, 21-year-old YEeri Wang posted her first video on Chinese social media and e-commerce platform, Xiaohongshu, to talk about her gender transition with her followers. After receiving a month of hormone replacement therapy, Wang, a trans woman, wanted to share how her body was changing. “The most noticeable change has been my mood swings — I get anxious more easily,” YEeri said in Chinese. “But my deltoid muscles, which used to bulge out, are getting smaller.”
To her delight, the video went viral, racking up over 15,000 likes and hundreds of supportive comments. She was surprised it had even passed Xiaohongshu’s censors; on streaming platform Bilibili, the same video had been flagged as “inappropriate content” and banned. “On Xiaohongshu, I found a space to pass on this positivity to my community,” YEeri told Rest of World. “I realized that being trans was not the end of the world.”
YEeri, currently an art student at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, is one of many trans Chinese people who are choosing to speak out on Xiaohongshu about their experiences.
Founded in 2013, Xiaohongshu started as a shopping and lifestyle app — a cross between Instagram and Pinterest — where users posted makeup tutorials and food reviews. In recent years, Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on queer expression, shutting down LGBTQ student group accounts on WeChat, erasing same-sex content from Weibo, and condemning the depiction of “sissy boys” in the media. In this environment, Xiaohongshu has emerged as a safe space for trans people like YEeri to express and advocate for themselves. The hashtag #跨性别 (#Transgender) alone has over 4.2 million views.
On Xiaohongshu, queer users share everything from video journals of their gender transition process to guides on coming out to parents. Trans people also often use the platform to find practical information, such as advice on changing their gender on identity cards and passports — a complex process in China that needs police certification, among other requirements.
Xiaohongshu has emerged as a more accepting oasis for queer communities largely because of its user base: young, urban, and predominantly female, according to a report from Chinese social media research institute Qian-Gua. On the video-sharing platform Bilibili, where roughly half the users are male, YEeri said her posts were often sexualized and fetishized. She recalled once receiving a direct message that asked her how much she would charge for sex. But on Xiaohongshu, where over 88% of the users are female, her videos often received encouragement. In a 2017 public opinion survey, female participants had reported more positive attitudes towards transgender rights.
Another reason behind Xiaohongshu’s relative openness and tolerance of its queer user base is its recommendation algorithm, which tailors content and groups users according to self-selected interests. Users are pushed content from others with similar interests and identities, sorted by hashtags like #Plus-sizedGirls, #WomenwithADHD, #Transgender, or #ComingOut. This makes it easier for marginalized communities to form and exist.
Through Xiaohongshu, the Frankfurt-based Chinese activist group Queer Squad, for example, was able to promote its events to other users interested in queer and feminist issues. On WeChat, Queer Squad’s team could only reach their existing subscribers, but on Xiaohongshu, many new users discovered them on their home pages, according to Pei, one of the founders. The number of participants in their events almost doubled after Queer Squad created a Xiaohongshu account, Pei told Rest of World.
“When posting on Weibo, only users with many followers get attention,” Fannan, a trans woman and an art student based in Chengdu, told Rest of World. Her essay, titled “What a trans woman really looks like, eliminating misunderstandings,” had gone viral on Xiaohongshu in June 2022. “On Xiaohongshu, even new users like me have a chance to be heard,” Fannan said.
Cui Xinyi, a software engineer who worked at Xiaohongshu between March 2021 and June 2022, told Rest of World the company’s work culture was more open-minded “compared to other tech companies.” A reason, said Cui, was that many of Xiaohongshu’s employees have studied abroad in more diverse environments, which makes them less likely to feel stigma towards queer people.
Xiaohongshu is one of the few Chinese social media platforms that mentions “diversity” and “gender equality” in its community guidelines, and encourages users to “safeguard the dignity of marginalized groups.”
State censorship regulations around LGBTQ content on the Chinese internet are ambiguous, leading internet companies to interpret the rules according to their own internal guidelines.
88% The percentage of users on Xiaohongshu that identify as female.Qian-Gua
For most platforms, “deleting all LGBT content is the most convenient way to respond to government directives,” Wang Shuaishuai, an assistant professor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, who studies queer communities on social media, told Rest of World. These vague censorship directives afford internet companies some flexibility in how they implement them. It’s possibly why YEeri’s video went viral on Xiaohongshu but failed to pass Bilibili’s censors.
Although YEeri is able to share her trans identity on Xiaohongshu without being censored, she recognizes the platform’s limitations. She said that on Xiaohongshu, users often feel compelled to fit mainstream beauty standards and become a brand that can be marketed and envied by others. “There is a strong emphasis on physical appearance,” said YEeri. “[On the app] it feels like trans women can only live normal lives if they are pretty or fit mainstream beauty standards.”
Xiaohongshu users tend to prioritize beauty and appearance, Stephanie Yingyi Wang, an assistant professor in gender and sexuality studies at St. Lawrence University, told Rest of World. “On this platform, the trans experience is embraced as a twisted redemptive story: A trans woman deserves respect because she can be even prettier than a cis woman,” Wang said. “It is easier for those with privilege [who can afford hormone replacement therapy] to speak up on this platform.”
Xiaohongshu’s primary function is as an online marketplace. Both YEeri and Fannan make money on the platform as brand ambassadors: YEeri collaborates with cosmetics brands to market their skincare products and contact lenses, while Fannan, who also posts regularly about her pet rabbits, makes 500 yuan ($73) per post promoting pet care companies.
Both believe brands are interested in them so that they can monetize their large followings on Xiaohongshu — not to support their trans advocacy. “Brands don’t collaborate with me because I am trans, but because compared to more influential bloggers, my collaboration fees are low,” said YEeri. “It’s just a good way to make pocket money.”