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Chinese Court to Hear Same-sex Marriage Case

FILE - A police officer stands guard at the entrance to the Jinan Intermediate People's Court. While homosexuality is not illegal in China, same-sex marriage is not legal and same-sex couples do not have legal protections.

A Chinese court has accepted the country's first same-sex marriage case, filed by a gay man in Hunan province against the government for refusing his application to marry his male partner.

The decision is being hailed as a step forward for gay rights and as a major test case for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in China, his lawyer told Radio Free Asia.

While homosexuality is not illegal in China, same-sex marriage is not legal and same-sex couples do not have legal protections.

Sun Wenlin, 26, filed a lawsuit December 16 against the Furong district civil affairs bureau in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in central China. His lawsuit challenged the bureau's refusal to allow the couple -- his partner is 36 years old -- to register their marriage.

On Tuesday, the court said it had accepted the lawsuit, he said.

"I think from a legal point of view, we should be successful," Sun said. "Our marriage law says there is the freedom to marry and gender equality. These words can be applied to same-sex marriage."

No gender specification

Sun is arguing that current Chinese marriage law refers to the union of "husband and wife," but without specifying the gender of either party to the marriage. The argument rests on the idea that a person can identify as a husband or a wife without reference to their gender, RFA reported.

Officials at the Furong district civil affairs bureau could not be reached for comment. A court official in Furong said the court "will not comment on cases before they are heard."

The court is expected to hand down a ruling on the case within six months.

Sun's lawyer, Shi Fulong, told RFA the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have yet to fully enter public awareness in China.

Shi said the gradual liberalization of gay marriage in Western countries, including the United States, has paved the way for changing attitudes in China.

Until 2001, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in China.

The country has become more tolerant of homosexuality, but many gay people remain under heavy pressure to stay hidden.

Significant case

Activists said the court's acceptance of the case was significant and would likely lead to more such cases.

"In China, courts often reject politically sensitive cases, so the fact that the lawsuit is accepted signals some official willingness to address discrimination against LGBT people, which is encouraging," Maya Wang, a China researcher at the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

"But we will need to see if they actually win the case. If they do, it'd be a truly watershed moment for LGBT rights in China," Wang said.

A Guangzhou resident who runs a support group for the friends and relatives of LGBT people said there is still a long way to go for LGBT rights in China, but welcomed Sun's lawsuit.

"This is the first case to do with gay marriage in this country ... and really it's quite epoch-making," the man, who gave only a nickname A Qiang, said. "There is still a long way to go for gay marriage in China, but the good thing is that there has been huge change [globally] in the past decade or so, and the overall trend is towards legalizing gay marriage."

How many Chinese would identify themselves as gay is unknown, as social stigma associated with homosexuality remains widespread, with many choosing to marry despite their orientation, RFA reported.

More and more educated urban Chinese have begun revealing their homosexuality in recent years, while the gay dating app Blued has estimated that China is home to 13 million gay men, and says it currently has three million users.

Last February, Internet giant Alibaba paid for 10 same-sex couples to get married in California, as part of a contest it said would help to promote LGBT rights.

Some material for this report came from Radio Free Asia and Reuters.