A rising tide of public tolerance for gay people in China is beginning to erode official prejudice, activists here say.
Last month, for the first time, a Chinese court agreed to hear a case brought by a gay couple against a government agency that had refused to register them as married.
In another landmark decision late last year, government film censors approved for public release a joint Sino-French film featuring two homosexual men in romantic lead roles – the first time such subject matter had passed official scrutiny.
“Official attitudes are improving,” says Li Yinhe, a veteran antidiscrimination advocate. “Ordinary Chinese people’s attitudes to gays are much more accepting … and that contributes to changing official views.”
Sun Wenlin, who is suing the Civil Affairs Bureau in the city of Changsha in central China for its refusal to marry him to his partner, sees his unprecedented legal adventure as agitprop. “No matter what the result of my lawsuit, history will record everything,” he says. “I hope this case will spark broad discussion, and that I can help educate people about gays.”
Until 1997, homosexual sex was a criminal offense in China. Only in 2001 did the Ministry of Health remove homosexuality from its list of mental diseases.
The exact level of public acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is hard to judge: Opinion polls have yielded wildly varying results. Though the Confucian tradition does not share the moral objections to homosexuality common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the importance it attaches to family lineage strongly colors Chinese views.
It is clear that the countryside is much more conservative than the big cities. But in the cities, where opinion leaders and social trendsetters live, gays have seen their lives transformed over the past decade.
Where once they were underwater, “now they have broken the surface and come into public view,” says Prof. Li.
Friendly public spaces
Gay bars, clubs, cafes, and organizations have flourished in Chinese cities in recent years, carving out friendly public space. The Internet too has offered new opportunities for LGBT people to socialize and for straight people to learn about a subject that the state-dominated mainstream media had traditionally ignored.
Even in Changsha, a drab inland industrial city by no means known for progressive social mores, “it is very common to see two guys or two girls walking downtown hand in hand,” says Mr. Sun. Nor, he adds, does his sexual orientation or the attention he has drawn with his lawsuit pose any problem at his workplace, a tech firm.
The increasing visibility and self-confidence of the gay community has fueled the growth in China of what is known as the “pink economy,” prompting many companies, especially online retailers and electronics manufacturers aiming at a young, educated, urban demographic, to proclaim their support of gays.
Last year Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace that is owned by Alibaba, sponsored a contest in which gay couples posted videos telling their love stories. The ten winners were sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to get married in California.
“There have been some big changes in the last ten years,” says Hu Zhijun, co-founder of the Chinese branch of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a support group. “I’ve seen more and more people coming out, more and more gays living together as husband and wife,” he adds. “That used to be unimaginable.”
Sun Wenlin’s marriage lawsuit marks “a big step forward, gay people using the law to defend their rights,” Mr. Hu says.
No ban, but no exposure
The court’s acceptance of the case is indeed a milestone, but it still has not heard arguments in the suit; a hearing set for last week was postponed, apparently because of a defense lawyer’s scheduling conflict.
And though China has approved the Sino-French film featuring a homosexual relationship, the picture has not yet been shown on any cinema screens, four months after the censors’ unexpected ruling.
Such hiccups indicate how slowly official minds are changing, says Fan Popo, a gay film-maker who last December scored a first-ever victory in a lawsuit against the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television after his documentary “Mama Rainbow” was pulled from video-sharing websites without explanation.
The case ended with an official ruling that his film, following six mothers as they came to terms with their childrens’ homosexuality, had not been officially banned. But only one website has since made it available again, he says.
That has not stopped Mr. Fan from making a sequel, “Papa Rainbow,” which he has nearly finished. “We say that in 10 years’ time our film will be on the big screen and anybody will be able to watch it,” he says, hopefully. “That’s our dream.”