In the places around the world where taboos about homosexuality have been broken down over the years, the seeds of change have often been sown in the universities. As sexuality became a legitimate topic of study in disciplines ranging from science and medicine to sociology and literature, these societies gained more knowledge about a group that is estimated to be about 10 per cent of the human population. Formal and institutionalised discrimination in such places are now the exception rather than the norm. Often, greater understanding has gone hand in hand with less fear and greater tolerance.
Those who advocate equal treatment for gays and lesbians should thus be encouraged by the news, which we report today, that one of the mainland's leading universities has launched a graduate course on the topic. Granted, the mainland has some way to go before it grants the kind of recognition found in places such as Canada, where gay and lesbian marriages are legally sanctioned in two provinces. In China, homosexuality was classified as a mental disease until two years ago, while depiction of the topic will still get filmmakers in trouble with government censors.
It would be naive to think that academic courses alone will lead to overnight change, in laws or attitudes. Elsewhere, recognition and legal rights have come as a result of decades of activism, in addition to research that provided deeper understanding of homosexuality. Some historians date the beginning of the modern gay rights movement to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. In the 1980s, the movement was given another push by the rise in Aids and HIV cases. Disproportionately affected gay men pushed for access to health care and recognition of their partnerships, coming out of the closet and raising awareness along the way.
On the mainland, those infected with HIV are more likely to be rural families who sold their blood, prostitutes and intravenous drug users - and it would be difficult to predict how a broader gay rights movement would be sparked.
Yet the Fudan University course should be taken as an encouraging sign. Opening the minds of the country's future academics and policymakers is part of the groundwork needed for more progress to take place. It comes at a time when the Anglican Church is debating the ordination of gay priests and there are controversies around the world over the legalisation of homosexual marriages. This should provide fertile ground for debates over principles such as tolerance, compassion and non-discrimination.
The beneficiaries of any recognition of the need for fair and equal treatment would include gays and lesbians, but also members of other disadvantaged groups in China, including Aids victims, rural migrants and the disabled.