LGBTQ+ Activists Fight For Rights Despite Legal Setbacks

Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and delisted as a psychiatric disorder in 2001, the Chinese LGBTQ+ community continues to face discrimination and marginalization from both the Chinese state and Chinese society. From discriminatory textbooks to China’s new Civil Code, adoption rights to transgender protections, 2020 has been a landmark year for the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for equality in the face of the law. 

In 2016, an undergraduate sociology major filed a civil suit against a textbook publisher for designating homosexuality as a “psychosexual disorder” and a “perversion” in a case that echoed a 2015 suit against China’s Ministry of Education on similar grounds. After four years of delays, a Jiangsu court ruled against the plaintiff in a September 2020 ruling. At The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee profiled Ou Jiayong the young woman who brought the suit against the publisher:

So Ms. Ou, who also uses the name Xixi, brought a lawsuit demanding that the publisher remove the reference and publicly apologize. Her case has renewed the conversation about tolerance and human rights in a country where discrimination based on sexual orientation is rampant and where homosexuality has long been seen as incompatible with the traditional emphasis on marriage.

In a letter to the judge, Ms. Ou, now 23, recalled being “deeply stung” when she read the textbook. “It brought back memories of being laughed at by my classmates because of my homosexuality,” she wrote in the letter, which her lawyer read aloud in court this summer, three years after the suit was filed.

[…] Ms. Ou’s case stunned many people who had no idea that some textbooks still classified homosexuality as a disease, said Peng Yanzi, director of L.G.B.T. Rights Advocacy China, an influential group that has led many awareness-raising campaigns. Citing a survey that a research group conducted in 2016 and 2017, out of the 91 psychology textbooks used in Chinese universities, almost half of them said that homosexuality was a type of disease. Several have been amended, Mr. Peng said, but “many more” remain. [Source]

Although same-sex couples may hold private marriage ceremonies, the Chinese state does not recognize same-sex marriage. This leaves couples in a legal gray area, unable to co-register property deeds, legally adopt children, enjoy marriage-based workplace benefits, or change hukou household registrations, among other issues. In May of this year, China adopted its first Civil Code, a collection of “private laws that regulate property and personal rights, including laws on contracts, property, marriage, and torts.” In September at ChinaFile, Darius Longarino wrote on the “Love Makes Family” campaign, a movement to legalize same-sex marriage through inclusion in the Civil Code:

Ai Cheng Jia posted explainers online on how to formally submit comments to lawmakers calling for gay marriage, and created a Weibo hashtag “Civil Code Same-sex Marriage.” The campaign went viral beyond organizers’ expectations. In the first four days, the hashtag’s view count surged to 200 million before censors deleted it. Mercifully, whether for lack of capability or caring, censors did not ratchet up Internet controls, allowing supporters to keep spreading the word. In one such post, a Wuhan lesbian couple made a heartfelt appeal for why others should join this seemingly quixotic quest. “Many people believe it’s not yet time to legalize gay marriage . . . but if we don’t do anything, it’ll never ‘be time,’” they wrote. “There is no ‘right time.’ There is just us making the time ‘right.’” Ai Cheng Jia encouraged straight allies to join in, including parents of gays and lesbians, some of whom printed out family photos and mailed them in with proposals. The submission numbers climbed into the thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands.

By the close of the month-long comment period, a whopping 213,634 people had made submissions on the Code’s marriage chapter, absolutely dwarfing counts for other sections by orders of magnitude. The sheer scale was exciting, but when a National People’s Congress (NPC) spokesperson publicly acknowledged the large volume of calls for gay marriage, the social media champagne really uncorked. Celebratory posts cascaded down feeds. The state-run Beijing News created a hashtag about the spokesperson’s statement that reached 840 million views (though it later deleted its original post and removed itself as the hashtag creator).

The campaign fell short of achieving its ultimate goal; the final draft of the Code, passed in May, limits marriage to “man and woman.” But the fact the campaign mobilized so many people and got so much attention instilled a greater sense of agency in China’s LGBTQ community. “We will no longer be resigned to fate,” wrote Lengyi, a lesbian college student reflecting on the campaign. “My destiny belongs to me, and not to heaven.” [Source]

Divorced same-sex couples often face difficult custody battles as Chinese courts do not recognize their marriages. A landmark custody case in Shanghai concerning two women who married and had children in the United States attracted broad attention on Weibo this summer. A similar case in Fujian province earlier this year, wherein one woman gave birth to a child conceived of her partner’s embryo, resulted in the judge awarding custody to the birth mother “on grounds that the parental relationship between the child and plaintiff could not be legally established solely on the basis of the child having the plaintiff’s genes.”

Transgender men and women likewise face discrimination. In August, a Beijing court ruled in favor of a transwoman, “Gao X”, who was fired from her job as a product manager at the e-commerce firm Dangdang after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. The Beijing lawsuit was one of many brought by transgender individuals who have experienced workplace discrimination after coming out. 

While hailing the case as an important anti-discrimination outcome, Longarino wrote in a China Law Translate Article that it was a narrow victory, decided on an “illegal termination (a kind of labor dispute) rather than discrimination (a kind of tort)” basis. 

Activists have now turned their focus to China’s 2020 census, a massive once-a-decade undertaking that tracks China’s demographic changes and informs government policy. At Sixth Tone, Zhang Wanqing wrote about the “they are not my roommate, they are my partner” campaign to get same-sex couples counted in China’s census

Started by the Guangzhou-based nonprofit LGBT Rights Advocacy China, the “They are not my roommate, they are my partner” campaign is encouraging queer comrades to disclose their relationships with their partners when the census takers come knocking. Many Chinese same-sex couples in cohabiting relationships often say they are “roommates” to avoid unwanted attention, even though being gay isn’t illegal in China.

Campaigners say LGBT individuals can include their relationship in the “other” category on the census form, which is used to denote a relationship with someone in the household that’s not listed elsewhere on the form.

Lauren, who lives with her girlfriend in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that the idea for the campaign took root after a positive interaction with a census taker who didn’t seem to raise an eyebrow or judge her relationship. She said the attitude from the person doing preliminary research before the Nov. 1 census emboldened her — though she understands people living in smaller towns and other conservative communities may not be as comfortable opening up. [Source]

This summer the organizers of Shanghai Pride, China’s largest and longest running LGBTQ+ celebration, abruptly announced that they would no longer hold future events. At Supchina, one anonymous team member reported that “at least three people on the core team had been invited to drink tea (喝茶 hē chá) with police—a euphemism for interrogation in China’s political language. Team members don’t feel safe anymore, as they get random house checks and questioned by cops.” 

While Chinese society is increasingly accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, the coronavirus pandemic has underscored continued discrimination against LGBTQ+ Chinese citizens. After photographs of a Chengdu spa popular among gay men went viral on Weibo in early October, the platform was flooded with malicious and scurrilous claims about gay men. CDT Chinese recently published an essay, “Reject Severing Relations,” decrying efforts made by some in the Chinese gay community to distance themselves from the Chengdu bathhouse’s patrons in order to gain society’s acceptance: 

Today, those “bad gays” who you feel the need to sever relations with are those who like going to gay spas. Tomorrow, they might be someone else. Is there really a way to keep severing relations until in the end we truly meet the standard for good gays in “their” eyes?

And finally, after each of us has exhausted ourselves to seem like good gays, when nobody can find anything wrong with us, have you ever considered that being gay itself has always been the thing that, in “their” eyes, requires severing relations? [Chinese]

Despite the homophobic attacks on Weibo, many Chinese youth have found community and acceptance online. At Rest of World, Zeyi Yang and Meaghan Tobin profiled the “subtitle army” that translates LGBTQ+ content into Chinese, providing information hidden by government censors:

It was 2014. Dai was a 15-year-old student in Dalian, China. She was still figuring out her sexuality and, before high school, had never even heard of being gay. Then, she developed a crush on an older female student and began secretly looking online for queer content. That was how she discovered that all the western LGBTIQ movies she’d found were subtitled by the same crew: a volunteer group named Queer as Folk (QAF), or 同志亦凡人中文站.

“QAF is really the place where my eyes were opened,” Dai said. “There I learned that there are actual people with different sexualities, that people have different likings, and that boys and girls dressing in the opposite way is not a problem at all.” She gradually realized she was bisexual. When Dai went off to college, she joined QAF as a subtitle translator. [Source]


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