China’s media regulator is being taken to court over its view that homosexual activities are “abnormal”, in a rare public case that pits state censorship against gay rights.
Following a crackdown on showing homosexuality in the country’s media, a Beijing court has made the unusual move of accepting a legal challenge brought by a member of the public hoping to raise awareness in a country still gripped by dated conservative views on homosexuality.
In the unlikely event that Fan Chunlin, 30, wins his case, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) would be forced to publicly clarify a regulation banning the release of programmes that show “abnormal sexual relations or behaviour”.
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The SAPPRFT is in charge of censoring the media for content it considers vulgar, immoral, illegal or politically sensitive. It currently classifies homosexual behaviour alongside incest and sexual violence, under the “abnormal sexual relations” bracket.
With China’s courts, the media and the SAPPRFT all controlled by the ruling communist party, the chances of Mr Fan winning the case are small. However, Mr Fan’s lawyer, Tang Xiangqian, said that he hoped that the legal challenge will raise awareness of rights for homosexual people in the country.
The challenge has already been covered by the government-controlled The Global Times Newspaper, which has increased its positive coverage of Chinese LGBT issues over the last five years, despite much of Chinese society holding negative views about them.
Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997, and classified as a mental illness in the country until 2001. Since then China has made much progress with regards to acceptance of non-heterosexual lifestyles, but lags behind many of its Asian neighbours with regards to gay rights.
In June last year Taiwan, the island that is self-governed with its own president but which Beijing considers a rogue state it seeks reunification with, voted to allow gay marriage. A similar move in mainland China seems decades away, at the earliest, according to experts.
China, which has a population of 1.35 billion, only has one regular Gay Pride week, which takes place annually in Shanghai and is still the target of attention from police.
Indeed, China’s President Xi Jinping is yet to dance at any Gay Pride events, like his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau famously did in 2016. But in 2012 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the second most senior figure in the government, publicly met with influential LGBT tech industry leader Geng Le.
Mr Geng, a gay former policeman, is the founder of the enormously successful Chinese dating app Blued, which the government has worked with to organise AIDS testing centres. Since Blued launched in 2012 Beijing has launched a job fair for LGBT people, and the capital’s first ‘fully open’ gay bar opened in the trendy Sanlitun bar area.
Despite moves such as these, homosexuality remains a taboo subject for many Chinese. It is estimated that a tiny percentage of Chinese homosexuals ever fully come out, and many have sham marriages to fool their families into thinking they are heterosexual. Smartphone apps such as Queers, which matches gays with lesbians to facilitate such marriages, have boomed.
Chinese media regulators maintain a highly conservative attitude towards homosexuality on screen. In February 2016 the Chinese TV show Addiction, which focused on gay students, was pulled off air shortly after becoming hugely successful.
Imported foreign films are also scrutinised for homosexuality-based content, even if it doesn’t involve humans. Last year the film Alien: Covenant, directed by Ridley Scott, was censored in Chinese cinemas to remove a kiss between two robots, both played by Michael Fassbender.