A Chinese student in Guangdong Province is suing the country’s Ministry of Education over textbooks that classify homosexuality as a mental illness, Hong Kong Free Press reports.
The student, referred to in the Chinese media by the pseudonym Qiu Bai, came across the material while seeking to learn about her own sexuality. What she found in her university’s library were psychology textbooks that compared homosexuality to pedophilia and suggested “treatment” like electroshock therapy.
Forty percent of postgraduate textbooks published after 2001 still classify homosexuality as a psychological disorder, according to China’s Tong Cheng Youth Centre, with 50 percent recommending various courses of treatment to “cure” LGBTQ patients.
What’s worse is that these textbooks are published by the state. When Qiu Bai and some of her classmates sent letters of complaint about the books to General Administration of Press and Publication and the Guangdong Provincial Department of Education, they received an official response stating that the books contained no errors and were written “according to national standards of diagnosis.”
The Chinese Psychiatric Association officially stopped classifying homosexuality as a form of mental illness in 2001, but the attitude that queerness is a psychiatric disease that must be “cured” still persists, with ugly results. Like the United States, China is home to many gay “conversion” therapy clinics, though China’s centers take more of a pseudo-psychiatric approach than America’s religious-based centers.
Why would a Chinese person undergo gay “conversion” therapy? A worker in a clinic, recorded in secret by documentarians, explained:
The simplest request from your parents is to have kids, and they can enjoy the happiness of a family union. You can’t give them that. We met many parents. When they found out about their children’s problem, they lost the desire to live.
Chinese people are under immense social pressure to marry and have a child. Their parents, grandparents, and even their government are relentless in pushing them to wed and produce offspring. Anyone who isn’t married by their late 20s is stigmatized, deemed a “leftover woman” or, less commonly, a “leftover man.”
Same-sex marriage is also illegal in China, which means that a gay son or daughter cannot marry. China’s ban on “assisted reproductive technology” for unmarried women means that a lesbian daughter can’t even get artificial insemination. And China’s culture of interdependence and filial piety means that adult children are disinclined to disobey their parents’ wishes. Many of the Chinese people who go to gay “conversion” therapy clinics do it to make their parents happy.
Last year, Yanzi Peng successfully sued one such clinic for performing electroshock therapy on him to “treat” his homosexuality. Yanzi (interviewed under the pseudonym “Xiao Zhen”) described his experience at the clinic to the New York Times:
They had me lie down and started with hypnosis. They asked me to relax, close my eyes, for about 20 minutes. Then they asked me to start imagining having sex with men, and said to move my finger to let them know if I had any emotional or physical reaction to these fantasies.
In the 20 minutes of hypnosis, I’d gotten quite comfortable, so I really did imagine such a scene and followed their instructions, moving my finger. Suddenly, I was shocked with electricity. I hadn’t expected that at all. I jumped up from the couch. I asked them what had happened.
I thought, if you have to get shocked three or four times per session, and then if you have five courses of treatment and six sessions per course, you’re going to have to undergo it a hundred or so times! It’s really terrifying.
I later asked them if the treatment was always like this, and had they received some sort of training? They said they hadn’t. So I thought that was really suspicious.
Yanzi won the suit. The court ruled that gay conversion therapy was unnecessary because homosexuality is not a condition that needs to be cured. The court ordered the center to apologize to Yanzi and reimburse him $560.
Yanzi’s success could bode well for Qiu Bai’s case, but there could be a few clouds on the horizon. China’s government has shown ever-increasing intolerance toward political activists. On the eve of International Women’s Day last March, Chinese authorities arrested five women’s rights activists and jailed them for a month merely for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation. The five women were freed after an immense outcry from influential activists, journalists and politicians all over the world, including Hillary Clinton.
More recently, China has cracked down on human rights lawyers, detaining more than 200 lawyers and associates. Some are still in custody.
Yanzi’s lawsuit did not go entirely smoothly, either. According to a documentary produced by AJ+, Yanzi’s lawyer Duilong Li was briefly detained by the police. They questioned him about his lawsuit and released him after two days.
Qiu Bai isn’t just going up against a little clinic; she’s suing a government agency. It’s an incredibly brave—and incredibly dangerous—thing to do in her country.