After dating for a year, Sun Wenlin and his boyfriend decided to marry. Last June, he applied for marriage at a local civil affairs office in Changsha, Hunan, where the official initially refused his application, but relented when Sun threatened to complain. When his application was rejected, Sun filed a lawsuit, and earlier this month the courts accepted his case.
“In China, courts often reject politically sensitive cases,” Maya Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Reuters, “so the fact that the lawsuit is accepted signals some official willingness to address discrimination against LGBT people, which is encouraging.”
Sun’s is the first marital equality case to be heard by a Chinese court, and will convene within the next six months. His complaint is that the law doesn’t specify marriage is between a man and a woman, but between a husband and a wife.
“A husband and a wife can be understood in terms of both relationship and identity,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
However, the Marriage Law does state, “marriage must be based upon the complete willingness of both man and woman.” On the other hand, its provisions for marriage make no mention of sex or gender.
And Sun’s case, withal, belongs to a far broader trend. Homosexual sex was legalized in 1997; homosexuality was removed from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. In 2004, magazine editor Wu Youjian expressed support for her gay son on public television, and in 2009, Hong Kong’s domestic violence laws were extended to protect same-sex couples and the annual Shanghai Pride had its first celebration.
Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, writes, “China’s cosmopolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai now boast robust LGBT communities, complete with support groups, bars and an array of gay meeting places. In 2009 a male couple held a symbolic wedding in public not far from Tiananmen Square, and China Daily splashed the photo of the two men in a passionate embrace across its pages.”
Ugly stereotypes do persist, but in recent years attitudes have more rapidly matured. An article by Vice News in April last year argues parents are leading the way in changing attitudes. One father said that, when his son came out, “I was so stunned my head went blank. I felt terrible.” Yet he later wrote a seven-page letter, which he sent to 1,000 officials, arguing for marital equality, explaining, “eventually I decided that he is, after all, my son.”
I can personally recall a Gay Kissing Competition in Chengdu in 2014. Having spent my teenage years in rural Virginia in the United States, and carrying a head full of preconceived notions about Chinese attitudes toward homosexuals, this struck me as remarkably progressive. Finding a post about the event on chinaSMACK, a blog with a penchant for the sensational, I wrongly anticipated the worst from Chinese commentators.
“Why does it look like a new trick for hair salons to attract customers,” joked one netizen, referencing the somewhat wild hairdos of the men pictured.
“So disgusting,” wrote another. “Not that they’re gay, but their fashion sense.”
There were some hateful remarks, but sadly, I doubt your average Virginian would be as good-natured about such an event. Since then, China’s canter has become a gallop. Last June, Internet company Alibaba helped send seven gay couples to Los Angeles to be wed, and that same month, Global Times reported that 85 percent of those surveyed by the The Chinese Journal of Human Sexuality supported same-sex marriage (13 percent were unsure and only 2 percent were opposed).
In August, Sun Yat-sen University student Chen Qiuyan, also known as Liu Bai, filed a lawsuit to have textbooks removed that describe homosexuality as a sickness. Her lawsuit was also approved, and in November, education officials met with her outside Beijing. The case has not yet been resolved, but her lawyer commented, “They’re paying attention to this issue. I think that’s good. Only if there’s attention on a problem can it be solved.”
Two months later a symbolic proposal on a Beijing subway went viral, and was shared 10,000 times on Weibo. And in December, filmmaker Fan Popo, who had filed a lawsuit after discovering Chinese media sites no longer carried his 2012 documentary about Chinese mothers and their gay and lesbian children, won his case. Also last month, a new book came out suggesting Zhou Enlai, China’s first premier, was gay.
I have the highest hopes for Sun. While the road ahead is long, the trend is already clear, and as Sun’s legal consultant noted, in terms of raising awareness, his case is already a victory.