Struggles Facing China’s LGBT Community Go Far Beyond Marriage

Struggles Facing China’s LGBT Community Go Far Beyond Marriage
LGBT rights campaigners act out electric shock treatment as part of a protest, Beijing, July 31, 2014 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).
Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing WPR series on LGBT rights and discrimination in various countries around the world. The recent court ruling paving the way for same-sex marriage in Taiwan prompted speculation about similar measures elsewhere in Asia. It was unclear, though, whether the ruling would help or hinder the same-sex marriage cause in China. Still, Chinese activists have been scoring victories of their own, among them increased cultural visibility and heightened popular awareness of the harms caused by “conversion therapy.” On Thursday, a court in the city of Guiyang ruled in favor of a transgender man who complained of being unjustly fired from his job. In an email interview, Hoping, a Chinese LGBTQ activist and lawyer who was previously an international fellow at PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest Law and a visiting scholar at the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, describes the Chinese movement’s priorities and persistent challenges. WPR: How has public opinion about LGBT rights evolved since China delisted homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001? Hoping: Public opinion in China about LGBT rights has absolutely improved since 2001. However, we should be careful about giving too much credit to the psychiatric association’s 2001 delisting. In fact, the CCMD-3, the Chinese Society of Psychiatry’s most recent clinical guide to mental illness, does not include homosexuality as a general mental disorder, but it continues to include so-called self-discordant homosexuality as a mental disorder. This confusing classificatory scheme has allowed Chinese clinics to continue practicing conversion therapy and has perpetuated the stigmatization of homosexuality. However, several other important milestones for LGBT rights in China occurred in 2001. That year, Professor Li Yinhe became the first person to publicly propose legalizing same-sex marriage, and she has continued to lobby for such a bill since then. Given Li’s status as a well-known scholar on sexuality in China, her campaign has sparked public debate about same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general. The first queer film festival was also held in Beijing in 2001, and “Lan Yu,” a movie with significant gay themes, received a prestigious award in Taiwan. Moreover, as the internet became popular, China’s online LGBT and pop culture community began to take shape. This self-supporting community has helped shape public opinion through public advocacy campaigns, albeit via the limited channels at its disposal. For example, several LGBT organizations initiated the Rainbow Media Awards, documenting and monitoring media coverage of LGBT issues. Although publicly expressed support for LGBT rights is still not widespread, the visibility of the LGBT community has absolutely improved over the years, and younger Chinese are more comfortable with the notion of LGBT rights than older generations. Even backlashes can be seen in a positive light. Recently, for instance, the Chinese broadcast association decreed that homosexuality should be portrayed as a “sexual perversion,” an obvious regression in the discourse surrounding LGBT rights. However, the move has also increased public sympathy for LGBT people. WPR: What are the main priorities for Chinese LGBT activists, what progress has been made in achieving them, and who are the strongest, most vocal opponents? Hoping: Chinese LGBT activists are very diverse. If we’re talking about the activist community as a whole, priorities include almost all issues related to LGBT people, such as inclusive education, equal rights in employment for transgender people, same-sex marriage and equal access to health care. There have been a few notable victories as of late. In 2014, a court ruled in favor of a gay man who had been subjected to electroshock treatment as part of conversion therapy, declaring that “homosexuality is not a disease and doesn’t need treatment.” This case raised awareness of the practice of “conversion therapy” and encouraged more activists to work on promoting the revision of the CCMD-3. In a 2015 case dealing with discrimination against transgender people in the workplace, a Chinese court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, a transgender man, even if it refused to base the decision on a claim of discrimination over his gender identity. The case attracted a great deal of public attention and increased the visibility of transgender issues in China. As for the Chinese LGBT community’s strongest, most vocal opponents, we need to consider the cultural context. First, given China’s ubiquitous media censorship, the LGBT community lacks the public forums needed to debate issues broadly. Instead, more attention has been given to shaping how families approach LGBT issues, as well as to internalized homophobia, which is still a significant problem. Traditional gender discrimination and parents’ desire for male offspring has also made the situation worse. Families are not necessarily the most vocal opponents of LGBT rights, but they may be the strongest overall opponents or obstacles to progress. The good news is that activism involving LGBT people and their families and friends is growing fast, with various organizations doing great work to change the situation on the ground. WPR: How might the court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in Taiwan shape mainland China’s LGBT rights movement? Hoping: The LGBT rights movement in mainland China has developed at its own pace, separately from the movement in Taiwan. Given the complex relationship between mainland China and Taiwan, it is hard to say if the ruling in Taiwan will affect mainland China’s LGBT rights movement. On the one hand, it provides great encouragement; after all, it showed that same-sex marriage could be legalized in an Asian culture. The ruling also triggered disappointment at the lack of progress within the mainland LGBT community. On the other hand, given perceptions about the lack of public debate regarding the legalization of gay marriage in Taiwan, many activists are concerned that the ruling may trigger a broad backlash. Anecdotally, I heard that a taxi driver in Taiwan complained to a visitor from mainland China that Taiwan would die out because of same-sex marriage, and that he believed people should flee to mainland China. It is possible that many people in China share the idea that same-sex marriage is dangerous or ridiculous.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review