Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the nation’s Constitution guarantees a right to marriage and equal protection under the law, making same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states. In the aftermath of the ruling, three Chinese LGBT activists came together to discuss–in their own terms–what the landmark decision means for them, their community, and for China.
Zheng Huang (Shanghai Xinsheng): Zheng Huang is the director of Shanghai Xinsheng, a CBO founded in 2004 in Shanghai. Shanghai Xinsheng works to promote health and human rights for sex workers and the LGBT community. YY: YY* works for a CBO based in Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province. Her CBO is dedicated to promoting the rights of women and sexual minorities and engages actively in the local public education field, focusing on sexual diversity and rights protections.*Name has been changed
What did you think when you heard the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage?
Han Ke: I was interning at The Los Angeles LGBT Center when I heard about the ruling. I was very excited, and so were the other interns from China. The ruling is something we should all be happy about; it shows that significant changes for the LGBT community are taking place right now.
Zheng Huang: I was very excited the moment I heard the news, and I immediately shared the information in both Chinese and English on my organization’s social media platform. I knew that, ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision, many states in the US had already legalized same-sex marriage. Now, the nationwide approval will have a significant impact on the legalization of same-sex marriage in other countries. “As long as I continue what I am doing, I believe I will be able to witness the day when same-sex marriage is also legalized in China.”
YY: Of course I was very happy. I found the news extremely encouraging. It makes me believe that nothing is impossible. As long as I continue what I am doing, I believe I will be able to witness the day when same-sex marriage is also legalized in China.
How would you characterize the attitude of the Chinese general public towards LGBT people? Do you think the US ruling will help to change attitudes in China?
Han Ke: We are paying close attention to public perceptions of the LGBT community in China. I’ve noticed that what happened in the US has not reduced public biases towards the LGBT community. Most Internet users in China hold negative views of LGBT people. Even though a select few show understanding or support, most of these people view LGBT people as being mentally ill; thus, their support is out of sympathy for the “patients.” As for the status quo of marriage in China, I think the government intentionally neglects and ignores the LGBT community and their legitimate demands. Basic rights for LGBT people are not protected in China.
Zheng Huang: The Chinese general public still has a discriminatory attitude towards LGBT people, because they think homosexuality is against traditional Chinese culture. For example, unmarried civil servants face greater challenges in getting promoted. The US’s ruling won’t have notable influence on the public’s prejudice in the near future. However, from a long term perspective, it is bound to play a constructive role in legalization of same-sex marriage in China.“The US’s ruling won’t have notable influence on the public’s prejudice in the near future. However, from a long-term perspective, it is bound to play a constructive role in legalization of same-sex marriage in China.”
YY: An online survey shows that over 70% of Chinese Internet users have unfriendly attitudes towards LGBT people. In my experience, coming out in real life–as opposed to online–is less likely to yield hostility from strangers. The US’s ruling has obviously drawn more people to this issue and ignited new discussions in China. It has presented gay people in a positive light to the general public. In these new discussions, China’s public biases towards LGBT people have come to the surface. I think concrete changes won’t happen until LGBT issues are confronted and debated over and over again across China.
Have you or anyone you know experienced LGBT-related discrimination regarding the right to marriage or other human rights?
Han Ke: Most of the Chinese LGBT people I know live under extreme repression due to discrimination from the general public. Most of them don’t have the courage to come out as LGBT, so when they reach what is deemed a “marriage-appropriate age,” many choose to get married without telling their partners about their sexual orientation, or have a sham marriage with another gay person of the opposite sex. This is the only way out for them to avoid stigma and discrimination in life caused by their sexual orientations.
Zheng Huang: Yes. Personally, I feel very strongly about this issue. In the city I live and work in–Shanghai–the house purchase policy does not allow for unmarried people without a Shanghai Hukou (local registry) to purchase homes. This means that non-local LGBT people in Shanghai are virtually excluded from buying a home of their own. For another example, some LGBT people that I know work in government sectors and have trouble getting promoted; supervisors assume that unmarried people are not mature enough to shoulder big responsibilities. However, it goes without saying that disclosing their sexual orientation at work will ruin their career.
YY: Of course–without marriage, a lot of rights and benefits are inaccessible for us. For example, the annual health check-up that is provided by employers does not include gynecological examinations for unmarried female employees. Also, affordable housing is only available to married couples. In general, in public spaces–especially in professional environments–discrimination against sexual minorities and unmarried people is ubiquitous. It is very common practice for companies to refuse to recruit gay or unmarried people.
What impact do you think the US ruling will have on the legalization of same-sex marriage in China?
Han Ke: In my opinion, the impact of the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US on China is very small. I don’t see any fundamental changes right now in China as a result.
Zheng Huang: There won’t be any impact in the short term.
YY: Although the US’s ruling is very encouraging, I am afraid it doesn’t have any notable impact on the situation in China, as most people here are still homophobic. However, it does have a strong influence in raising public awareness and in generating respect for homosexuality, marriage, and same-sex marriage. This is probably the first time when these issues have come to the general public’s attention and it has sparked constructive debates. “This is probably the first time when these issues have come to the general public’s attention and it has sparked constructive debates.”
What do you think Chinese LGBT people and allies can do to advance same-sex marriage, eliminate discrimination, and achieve equality?
Han Ke: The Chinese LGBT community has made strong appeals for same-sex marriage legalization, but the community is not yet willing enough to stand up and speak out. Most LGBT people here are still struggling to achieve basic living standards. A person must be relatively independent financially and socially to spread awareness on these issues. Then, they must express rational demands and strive for increased understanding and support from society.
Zheng Huang: For the time being, Chinese LGBT people are treated unfairly in the marriage system. We need to take firm action in educating the general public and helping them to understand that the union between two same-sex people is no different from a heterosexual union, and should be allowed with equal rights. More people should speak out and work to make society view this issue differently.
YY: Firstly, LGBT people need to speak out and increase visibility to become accepted by the general public. Unfortunately, right now LGBT people are stuck combatting biased public attitudes and homophobic individuals that we meet in our daily lives. In terms of our legal rights, it is a long journey to progress. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the law protects LGBT equal rights, but we have to start that campaign from the scratch.