Mainland homosexuals take lead in asking for fair deal

Public acceptance of sexual preferences is not keeping up with modern legal reforms, but more and more people are demanding equal rights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 3:28am

On the day when a Hong Kong transsexual won the right to marry as a woman, New Zealand had already become the first Asia-Pacific country to legalise same-sex marriage. While there is no sign of any Asian government following this precedent any time soon, the emerging faces of China's sexual minorities epitomise a growing challenge facing a traditional society in the fast lane of modernisation.

Homosexuality remains a taboo in China. But gays and lesbians have seen more trying times. Under Mao Zedong's reign, those who were found to have committed homosexual sodomy could be charged with hooliganism. During the Cultural Revolution, some ended up in labour re-education camps.

Such practices lingered until China opened up in the 1980s, bringing a sea change in the law. After official endorsement in 1984, sodomy and hooliganism were removed from the revised Criminal Law in 1997. In 2000, the government affirmed people's right to choose their sexuality and this was followed in 2001 by the removal of homosexuality from the nation's list of mental illnesses.

Social realities, meanwhile, do not seem to measure up to the extent of legal reform.

According to an investigative report by Chin a Daily in 2010, about 90 per cent of homosexuals said they had to get married due to family pressure. The fear of discrimination led many to resort to staying "in the closet".

As a 2008 survey found, of the 1,259 gay male respondents, 62 per cent had never revealed their sexuality, about one-fifth had suffered verbal and physical abuse, and 35 per cent had contemplated suicide, while 13 per cent actually attempted to kill themselves. Another survey in the same year found that a substantial section of society deemed openly gay people unfit to teach in schools.

Yet, China's developing civil society foresees changes. NGOs devoted to helping sexual minorities continue to emerge against all odds. Since 2003, Li Yinhe, a well-known sociologist, has persisted in her call for legalisation of same-sex marriage during the annual sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC). More strikingly, an increasing number of gays and lesbians have "come out", demanding recognition of their presence and rights.

In January 2010, a male couple allegedly held China's first public gay wedding in the presence of well-wishers - apart from their families - at a Chengdu bar. Three years later, an elderly male couple shared intimate pictures online, followed by a party at a Beijing restaurant where they wore wedding gowns. In February this year, a lesbian couple applied to wed at a Beijing marriage registry, only to have their request declined by a staff member who reportedly turned his back on them. Their story became an internet hit and a source of inspiration.

In a sign of changing attitudes, a group of 100-plus parents of gays and lesbians, styling themselves "comrade parents" - an allusion to the modern Chinese term of "comrade" for "homosexual" - wrote to NPC delegates in February. Published through a Guangzhou-based grassroots group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people's rights, their letter demands "marriage equality in China".

China is changing. In 2004, a local government in Sichuan was the first to allow a transsexual woman to marry a man, nearly a decade before Hong Kong's landmark ruling giving the same right. Perhaps there is something in the motherland Hong Kong's rights activists can look up to.

Dr Karen Lee is an assistant professor with Shue Yan University's Department of Law and Business