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China's LGBT movement sees win in court loss

Jeffrey Michels April 15, 2016

Though a Chinese court rejected a same-sex marriage lawsuit, many believe the case affirmed a growing acceptance of LGBT rights in China. DW examines the implications of the decision for country's gay rights movement.

China Homosexuel Sun Wenlin und sein Freund Hu Mingliang
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Vcg

On Wednesday morning, Sun Wenlin and his male partner Hu Mingliang entered a court in the central Chinese province Hunan, hoping to win a lawsuit against the government's denial of their right to marry. The case was dismissed by lunchtime. Chinese marriage law, which states that marriage is between "one husband and one wife," necessarily means between "a man and a woman," the court ruled.

But hardly anyone in China was expecting the court to say otherwise. Instead, activists claimed victory over the fact that the court heard the case in the first place - and that people have taken notice.

Sun and Hu's lawsuit was the first of its kind in a country whose LGBT rights movement is gathering steam, though with little tangible legislative results to show for it. With the legal battleground crucial for the fight in China for gay rights, did the court case represent a setback or a breakthrough?

Growing acceptance

Though complicated throughout the world, attitudes towards homosexuality form a unique knot of complications in China.

The country's state-run newspapers have respectfully run articles about the case and previous gatherings of the gay community - representing a big shift since 2001, when homosexuality was taken off of China's official list of mental illnesses. But just last month, the government banned depictions of gay people on television, as part of a crackdown on "vulgar, immoral and unhealthy content."

Beijing's stricter stance towards dissent as of late has worried some activists about the future of their movement. Police came once to Sun's home to ask him to drop the case, but didn't go any further as he persisted. Gay or lesbian citizens have found more confidence to come out and LGBT rights activists have generally gained more freedom to speak out. A pride festival is held every year in Shanghai.

Yet some doctors still carry out electric shock treatments to cure gay patients.

"In big cities, maybe there is now more LGBT visibility and activity. In the countryside, not much is being talked about," Josephine Ho, chair of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at Taiwan's National Central University. told DW.

Sun Wenlin und Hu Mingliang China
China has generally grown more accepting, though Sun Wenlin und Hu Mingliang are still viewed as brave for going public with their relationshipImage: Reuters/Stringer

Ho doubts that growing acceptance for gay rights is becoming a "sweeping phenomenon," qualifying the sexual revolution that others have said China is undergoing. "After all, China is huge and acceptance and resistance is a dynamic process, which is in a constant process of fluctuation."

Though rejection of gay marriage on the grounds of religion is rare in China, as found in many other countries, "very strong resistance based on traditional Chinese culture focus on family and filial piety," Sun Zhongxin, an expert on Chinese society and LGBT studies, and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told DW. To "fulfill the family obligation," children are to get married to the opposite sex and raise children.

She is optimistic though that "in the future more and more parents will change their attitudes towards same sex marriage."

Taking the battle to court

Legislation, however, has lagged far behind any social change. The stance of Chinese law has long been to take no official stance at all, having never specifically criminalized homosexuality while now taking no measures to protect the LGBT community. There are no laws, for instance, regarding workplace discrimination against gay or lesbian coworkers.

The LGBT community "has not emerged as a major category in most Asian states," said Ho, which prevents it from being considered as a protected class or deserving of legislation ensuring equal rights.

Seeking to finally change this, activists have gone on a legal offensive, initiating court action on a number of fronts. Lawsuits have been filed, for instance, over a film censored for depicting gay characters, textbooks listing homosexuality as a disorder, doctors providing gay conversion treatments, and an employer firing a transgender man for not fitting its "standards" of appearance.

Sun and Hu's case is the first to explicitly ask for recognition of a same-sex marriage. And with its clear and popular cause and its similarity to recent court battles in the US, which many Chinese activists view as inspiration, it certainly isn't expected to be the last. In this regard, the court case has been heralded at least as an acknowledgement by a Chinese court that the issue exists, and an effective way to garner attention for the movement.

After the case, Sun was quick to see the silver linings of his defeat. "We will continue to appeal," Sun said. The couple has 15 days after the decision to do so. "I think it is worthwhile. It catches people's attention and it will help our opinions spread." Documentary filmmakers have followed the couple throughout the process.

No marriage, but a honeymoon feeling

Shi Fulong, the couple's attorney, stated that, regardless of the ruling, "We will definitely win the future."

"This is a moment," one activist said of the case, pointing to all of the commotion surrounding it. Hundreds of people - mostly young activists from the LGBT community - waited outside of the courtroom on Wednesday in a show of support, with no interference from officials.

"The attention the case received will represent a breakthrough it if gets reported by the mainstream media or is spread through social media," Sun Zhongxin said. Though she expects mainstream media to stayed subdued in regards to the case, social media has followed it with great excitement and little censorship.

But Josephine Ho believes the widespread media coverage reflects changes in the West more than changes in China. "It is only when //en.wiktionary.org/wiki/homonationalism became an open US policy that suddenly gay marriage right issues in the Third World received attention," Ho said. "In Taiwan, we had a similar case as early as 1986, but not much followed upon it and international media did not find any interest in it."

Sun also doesn't expect change - official change, at least - to come any time soon. The Chinese government has been "retreating" from policy decisions that concern its citizens' private lives. "It might take some time for the government to be ready to make same sex marriage legal."

Those already engaged in the gay rights movement nonetheless hope that the case will serve as an awakening for many in the LGBT community, leading them to realize that their rights are closer for the taking.

A young lesbian activist outside the courthouse said that the experience was like "finally entering the struggle myself." She added that "this case definitely gave a lot of people courage to stand up. For gay people in China to make that first step was not really easy."