Meet the Lawyers Fighting for LGBT Rights

2016-04-08 11:41:11

On Monday, the battle for LGBT rights in China will face another test in the case of Mr. C, a transgender man who claims he was unfairly dismissed for wearing men’s clothing to work. Mr. C, who uses a pseudonym to protect his true identity, lives in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou.
Two days later, on Wednesday, April 13, China’s first ever case on gay marriage rights will be heard in Changsha, the capital of the central province of Hunan. The marriage registry office at Changsha Furong District Civil Affairs Bureau refused the marriage application of Sun Wenlin and his partner because they were both male.
Driving both of these cases is a loose association of Chinese legal professionals known as the “Rainbow Lawyers.” Made up of around 60 volunteer lawyers and legal workers, the group was set up in 2014 under the common belief that legal means are the best way to eliminate social discrimination against the LGBT community. The group is motivated by a desire to help people in the LGBT community who often exist at the margins of society, and who can have difficulty finding legal representation because of the sensitivity of LGBT issues.
The Rainbow Lawyers’ work in tandem with an increasing awareness and acceptance of homosexuality among China’s youth. Homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997, and was considered a mental illness until 2001. Progress has been made in China’s large cities where people are more open-minded about LGBT issues, but the situation is often very different elsewhere in the country.

One of the group’s first high-profile cases was fought by lawyer Liu Xiaohu in 2014. Liu represented a client who was unfairly dismissed after his employer saw an online video showing the client arguing with another gay man. Liu lost the case for lack of evidence — a result he calls “shocking” — but it was the first case ever in China about discrimination against a homosexual person in the workplace. “The case made an impact on views of gay rights in China,” Liu says. He is currently in the process of filing for a retrial.

The marriage equality case in Changsha is the first LGBT lawsuit that Shi Fulong has handled. A criminal lawyer by day, he was passed the case from a lawyer friend because Shi is experienced in dealing with cases on sensitive topics. “I’m optimistic about the case,” Shi says, despite his belief that marriage equality is a long way off in China.

The Rainbow Lawyers group runs a national hotline providing legal advice on LGBT issues, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. The team receives about 20 calls a month, with most inquiries relating to marriage and relationship issues.

Gou Tong, a volunteer who works 12 hours a week for the hotline. Gou says a common source of inquiries is marriages of convenience between gay men and lesbian women. These are increasingly common in China as a way of concealing sexuality from family. The arrangements bring up their own problems regarding property rights, custody of children, and taking care of in-laws, that last of which is legislated for by Chinese law.

Other inquiries Gou receives come from straight women who want to sue for divorce after finding out that their husband is gay. “They consider it fraud,” Gou says. The aggrieved wives want to know how they can legally receive compensation.

When Sun Wenlin applied for marriage in December 2015, an official at the civil affairs bureau in Changsha told him that only mixed-sex couples could register for marriage. Sun and his partner were not the first gay couple to be rejected in China, but Sun is the first person to take action. For Sun, the courtroom is the only place where authorities will listen to him. “As long as I can speak in court, I will have a chance to fight for our rights,” he says.

Mr. C, who was assigned female at birth but identifies as male, was fired without payment by his employer for wearing men’s clothes to the office. Mr. C is taking his former employer to a labor arbitration court in an anti-discrimination case. Both Sun Wenlin and Mr. C are from relatively conservative areas of China.

Lawsuits on LGBT issues are becoming increasingly common in China. There was a time when such suits would never even get filed. Shi Fulong attributes this to the rise of the millennials, who are more accepting of homosexuality than previous generations. Despite losing the 2014 landmark case, Liu Xiaohu is somewhat optimistic about LGBT rights in China. “The future is promising,” he says. “But there is a long way to go.” 

Additional reporting by Shi Yi.

(Header image: Astraea statuette and a rainbow flag. Astraea was the virgin goddess of innocence, purity, and justice in Greek mythology, and the rainbow flag is a symbol of LGBT pride, in front of The People's Court of Haidian District, Beijing, Dec. 19, 2014.  Xiao Muyi/Tencent/IC)