BEIJING — Huazhong University of Science and Technology in central China was known for its relatively welcoming attitude toward gay and lesbian people. Students waved rainbow flags at graduation, and the school hosted events featuring gay authors and artists.
So many Chinese were alarmed when a message of intolerance emanated recently from the university’s main campus in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province.
“Protect traditional Chinese morals,” said a banner carried on campus by members of the women’s basketball team. “Defend core socialist values. Resist corrosion from decadent Western thoughts. Keep homosexuality far from campus.”
A photo of the students with the banner, posted online by the team’s coach on Sunday, provoked immediate outrage, with people across China calling on the university to fire the coach and punish the students.
The incident also prompted a broader conversation about discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at Chinese schools.
China, which until 1997 considered homosexuality a crime, has gradually grown more tolerant of gay and lesbian people. Still, the country does not permit same-sex marriage, and discrimination is widespread, even at universities, which are often seen as more tolerant.
“It’s shocking to know things like this can happen,” said Luo Yinxi, 21, a gay student at the university.
In social media posts, Chinese students and activists called for the government to put in place greater protections for sexual minorities.
“This incident will be over soon, but the scar of it is never going to be erased,” one user wrote on WeChat, a popular messaging app. “Don’t wait until the next tragedy to make up for it.”
Activists started a hashtag, #NoQueerNoGame, to show solidarity with lesbian athletes at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, an elite school.
A group of mothers of gay students at the school took to the streets with a banner of their own. “Don’t let homophobes hurt our children!” it said. They called on the university to investigate the incident.
The women’s basketball team at Huazhong University of Science and Technology had a history of harassment against lesbian players, according to students. Ling Bing, a coach of the team, posted anti-gay rants on his social media accounts.
Even after the photo of the banner drew widespread criticism, Mr. Ling posted again to say it was a “double standard” that gay students could hold a rainbow flag at graduation but that the banner held by the basketball team members was considered unacceptable.
“What a pity that the great Chinese Communist Party and the great people of China won’t give you a chance to do that,” he wrote in a public post on QQ, a messaging platform.
University officials declined to comment.
Mr. Luo said he had been heartened to see straight people stand with gay and lesbian students in denouncing the banner. Still, he said, the reaction on campus had been mixed.
“Some think views like this are appalling, and some say it’s not worth talking about,” he said.
But the conversation online was largely critical of the banner and the university’s handling of the situation. Several people, for instance, took issue with the banner’s suggestion that socialism was at odds with homosexuality.
Li Tingting, a prominent advocate for gender equality, said in an interview that socialist values were about “freedom, justice, democracy.”
“The organizer does not have a deep understanding of what socialist values are,” she said.
Some experts expressed concern about the suggestion that homosexuality was an import from the West, despite its long history in China.
Harriet Evans, a professor at the University of Westminster in London, said the banner might have been influenced partly by the Chinese government’s recent efforts to limit “pluralistic values and practices,” noting the arrest of five women’s rights activists, including Ms. Li, in 2015.
She said the banner’s call to preserve traditional Chinese morality was a distortion of history. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with resisting moral corruption,” she wrote in an email.