China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997 and declassified it as a mental illness in 2001, yet it remains a difficult place to be gay. Same-sex partnerships are not recognised in law and there are no laws outlawing discrimination against sexual minorities. More controversially, China still allows ‘gay conversion’ therapies. Now, in a legal first, one gay man has challenged these outdated practices. What chance does he have?
Xiao Zhen (a pseudonym), a 30-year-old man, is the first person in China to file a lawsuit against a clinic offering ‘gay conversion’ therapy treatments aimed at changing sexual orientation, which are still common despite the fact that many medical experts criticize such procedures as ineffective and harmful. With the help of the Beijing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Centre, Xiao Zhen has sued the Xinyupiaoxiang Counselling Centre in Chongqing, as well as Baidu, China’s leading Internet search engine, for posting the ads that led him there.
Zhen is still awaiting a ruling from the Beijing court considering his lawsuit, but in the meantime he has joined forces with All Out, an international gay rights group, to urge the World Health Organization to issue a global statement condemning such treatments. So far, more than 108,000 people have signed the petition, which aims to get 125,000 signatures in total.
Gay discrimination can run deep in Chinese society, leading many people to take desperate measures in the hope of joining the heterosexual mainstream. Gay people are stigmatized, and don’t come out to their parents unless the parents are very liberal. As a result, there has been a rise in what are usually called “co-operative marriages”. These are arrangements in which the two partners in a gay male couple marry the two partners of a lesbian couple. It has the advantage of keeping the parents happy, whilst in practice the gay couples can continue to live together.
Even language is a battleground. The editors of the prestigious Contemporary Chinese Dictionary found themselves in trouble two years ago when they chose to leave out the colloquial definition of a word used to describe gay men and lesbians. The word ‘tongzhi’, which usually means ‘comrade’ or ‘people of the same purpose’, has evolved to mean gay. The longer form of the word – tongxinglian – is usually used to refer to both homosexuality and also a psycho-sexual disorder. The dictionary editors said they did not want to give the ‘gay’ definition of tongzhi because they did not want to encourage its use.
A good summary of the conditions facing LGBT people in China can be found in a UN Report published earlier this year. It notes that “workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is common and is not prohibited by any law or national regulation…Many choose not to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. A survey of 2,161 LGB Chinese people conducted in 2013 showed by 47.62% chose to remain completely secretive about their sexual orientation in the workplace.”
However, a gradual shift is occurring, with younger Chinese people becoming more tolerant of homosexuality, and more and more activists and advocacy groups fighting for gay rights. In Beijing now you can find a well-organised and high-profile LGBT Centre, which both organises events and also offers training and support. It has its own facebook page and recently, together with the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, published a groundbreaking report on the Mental Health of LGBT People in China.
The report notes that a 2008 study of existing public attitudes towards homosexuality in Wuhan found that only 17.1% of respondents considered homosexuality acceptable. A study of attitudes amongst students found that they were only marginally more liberal, with 41.2% saying that homosexuality did not comply with Chinese moral standards. The bias was even stronger amongst male students.
“Based on the results of numerous studies about the public attitude towards homosexuality published in China in the last 10 years, as well as on the perceptions of social pressure by the LGBT people themselves, we have concluded that the public’s acceptance of homosexuality is still relatively low, and that there is a difference in the acceptance level depending on the distance of the relationship,” says the report. It notes that the constant social pressure has caused harm to people’s mental health.
The LGBT Center has become a focus and location for other organisations campaigning for gay rights; Aibai is a media and advocacy enterprise; Tongyu promotes lesbian and trans-sexual issues; the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute organises the “Rainbow Awards” for Chinese media and a training course called “QueerUniversity”. There is also a separate health organisation, and a monthly magazine called Gay Spot.
These groups have organised a number of protests – small in number but nonetheless brave in China. Video footage of one demonstration shows activists holding up a protest banner at a Beijing medical conference. “Being gay is not an illness,” it reads.
Yinhe Li 李银河, a sociologist, sexologist, and an activist for LGBT rights, supports greater tolerance for non-conventional sexual activities in China. She encourages people to re-examine traditional attitudes towards sexual promiscuity and homosexuality. She proposes decriminalization of orgies and prostitution (both currently illegal in China). As a member of the national committee of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Li has regularly submitted proposals to legalize same-sex marriages, but without success.
Some liberal parents have banded together into Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of China (PFLAG China) in order to fight for the rights of their children and in 2013 penned an open letter to National People’s Congress delegates demanding marriage equality. The South China Morning Post reported that the parents expressed anxieties for their LGBT children, who are excluded from numerous rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts under current Chinese legislation. The letter’s suggestion that China’s same-sex marriage laws tries to “encourage homosexuals to marry heterosexuals” is, apparently, not without merit. A 2012 report claimed that as many as 16 million Chinese women are married to closeted gay men.
The letter added: “The fact that they can’t legally marry puts them in a difficult situation when they try to adopt children, sign for their partners’ operations, inherit assets from a deceased partner, or even buy a flat. Is our law trying encourage homosexuals to marry heterosexuals? Won’t this produce bigger social problems?”.
In some cities attitudes may be changing for the better. For example, since 2009 Shanghai has held an annual gay pride event – the first time a mass gay event had taken place in mainland China. The event now includes gay film screenings, discussion groups and a fun-run. Although no parade has yet taken place, due to legal advice that indicated that Chinese authorities would not approve of a parade taking place in the city, Shanghai Pride continues to function.
However. “LGBT is still a very sensitive issue”, said Wei Xiaogang, the director of Queer Comrades (a wordplay on tongzhi), a non-profit LGBT webcast. The greatest difficulty they face has less to do with bigotry than with the fact that they are trying to form organisations that might draw large numbers of people together on the basis of shared interests: always a problem in China.
Take the example of the 2013 Changsha Pride parade in the capital of Hunan province. About 100 people took part in the march along a riverfront park, carrying anti-discrimination banners and a giant rainbow flag. Changsha newspaper Xiaoxiang Morning News quoted march organiser, 19-year-old Xiang Xiaohan, as saying before the march that he hoped it would make people question discrimination against LGBT people, and “let more people have a correct understanding of us.” However, he was detained by police for 12 days for organizing an illegal march. Clearly there is still some way to go before the majority of Chinese people feel comfortable about homosexuality.