Tim Cook Coming Out Has Turned China Into a Nation of Fifth-Graders

Despite the Apple CEO’s Good Intentions, Netizens Mock iPhones for Being Gay

"Let me be clear," wrote Apple CEO Tim Cook in a Bloomberg Businessweek article published on October 30. "I'm proud to be gay."

Within an hour of the article's publication, Cook's first public announcement of his sexual orientation made headlines across news sites in China, where Apple enjoys a loyal consumer base but also faces deepening suspicions amid Chinese government accusations that Apple poses a threat to national security. China's huge social media space also reacted quickly to the news, with one related post by web giant Sina's tech platform forwarded more than 25,000 times in less than four hours. Popular tech blog Huxiu posted a complete Chinese translation of Cook's article within hours of its publication. And the hashtag "Apple CEO Cook comes out of the closet" was soon top-trending on Sina Weibo, China's huge Twitter-like microblogging platform, with over 23,000 related comments.

While Cook's announcement stemmed from a desire to make a contribution to the LGBT cause, that point seemed lost on many Chinese netizens, whose comments—whether or not they espoused support—viewed the news about Cook's sexual orientation almost entirely through the lens of the Apple iPhone.

Crude puns and derogatory remarks relating Cook's orientation to Apple products often seemed to drown out praise for his courage and support for his company's wares. One particular joke, repeated so often in the hours immediately following the release of Cook's article that the state-run Guangming Daily reported it as a typical netizen reaction, played on the Chinese term "bent man," slang for gay man. "No wonder the iPhone 6 bends so easily!" wrote user after user. (Tales of the ultra-slim iPhone 6 bending under light pressure have circulated both in the United States and abroad since the iPhone's release in September.)

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Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event introducing new iPads at Apple’s headquarters, October 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California.

Echoing another oft-repeated reaction to Cook's article, one Weibo user criticized the hypocrisy of people who express distaste for homosexuality while continuing to use Apple products, writing, "All you who discriminate against gays, if you were actually clever you would go shatter all the Apple products you own." Liu Songlin, Chairman of the Shenzhen-based firm Jucheng Management Consulting, was so enthusiastic about Cook's announcement that he started an iPhone 6 sweepstakes on his verified Weibo account that has over 100,000 followers. "I support Cook, I support same-sex love!" wrote Liu. "To show my support," Liu continued, "I have decided to buy another iPhone 6"—a purchase which will set him back $860 or more in the Chinese market, where iPhones are still popular but losing ground to less expensive Chinese-made smartphones like Xiaomi. Liu promised to give the new iPhone to one lucky Weibo user selected from the pool of users who forwarded his pro-LGBT post.

"A lot of people think that buying an iPhone shows a kind of personal identity," wrote another user, continuing, "After today, that will become a problem!" In another crude reaction so common on October 30 that Sina's entertainment channel mentioned it in their coverage of Cook's announcement, one user quipped, "No wonder the iPhone background image is of chrysanthemums"—referring to a Chinese slang term for anus.

Homosexuality is traditionally taboo in Chinese society, and same-sex marriage remains illegal. But acceptance of alternative lifestyles is increasingly widespread, especially among China's younger generations. When a British diplomat announced on Weibo on September 6 that he and his same-sex partner had wed in Beijing (at the residence of the British Ambassador, sovereign British territory), he received an outpouring of support from Chinese netizens.

Certainly not all viewed Cook's public announcement of his sexuality as merely an extension of Apple product branding. Many netizens responded with affirmations of the dignity of same-sex love. One user commented, "There is no such thing as same-sex love or different-sex love ... when two people who love each other can be together, it is the most beautiful thing on earth." Perhaps alluding to the relative acceptance that diverse lifestyles enjoy in American society, real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang responded to Sina Tech's article about Cook's announcement by simply stating, "True liberty."

Media, Society, Technology
Apple, Tim Cook, LGBT, Social Media