On Tuesday, the First Intermediate People’s Court of Beijing accepted the lawsuit of a 21-year-old lesbian university student against the Ministry of Education over their failure to respond to her complaint about homophobia in university textbooks.
Plaintiff Qiu Bai — a pseudonym she adopted to protect her privacy — told Sixth Tone she was incensed to see blatant homophobia printed in her books. “Textbooks should at least describe homosexuality with objectivity,” she said. “I don’t want discrimination permeating the school I live in and the materials I use every day.”
Qiu’s campaign has a long history. Early in 2014, when she was a freshman at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, capital of southern China’s Guangdong province, looking for information about sexuality in the school library, she found that homosexuality was described as a “disorder” on page 326 of Consulting Psychology published by Guangdong Higher Education Press in 2013, and two other textbooks.
Textbooks that include homophobic content, Beijing, Nov. 24, 2015. Courtesy of Qiu Bai
She raised the issue with publishers, censors, and the Department of Education in Guangdong province in March 2015, but her questions were ignored. Local courts refused her attempt to sue the publishers. On August 14, 2015, she sued the Ministry of Education, but during a pretrial meeting with ministry representatives in November, they persuaded her to withdraw the case, explaining that she could pursue the issue through the ministry’s complaint process. But complaint letters from more than 80 students across the nation received no response.
In April 2016, Qiu submitted a second lawsuit, which was rejected by the court on the grounds that the lack of response did not infringe her rights. On June 3, she filed the current lawsuit, stating “as a current university student, the plaintiff has a direct interest in the textbook materials.” This time, Qiu requested that the Ministry of Education recall all textbooks with an erroneous description of homosexuality, and make a statement on the issue.
Textbook descriptions of homosexuality as a “disorder” persist despite homosexuality being removed from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders in 2001. “These books can be easily found in the library,” Qiu said. “Last year, even the professional textbooks for examinations to become a licensed counselor were wrong.”
The spokesman of Gay and Lesbian Campus Association of China, who goes by the name “Dou Dou,” told Sixth Tone, “Textbooks, together with film censorship, negative media coverage, and bullying, strengthen people's perceptions that homosexuality is wrong and marginal.”
Qiu’s lawsuit is part of a concerted push from LGBT rights advocates in China against the continuing perception of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities as a form of illness or deviance. On Monday, a local court in Henan province accepted a 37-year-old man’s lawsuit against a hospital where he was forcibly committed and medicated for being gay.
The last twenty years have seen significant progress on LGBT rights in China since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, but issues remain with employment discrimination, media censorship, and a lack of civic recognition. Attitudes are shifting slowly. For Qiu’s parents, who learned of her sexuality through her protests, their daughter’s actions are just “seeking the limelight.”
Facing pressure from her family and society at large, Qiu has experienced depression in recent months, and sought out a psychologist for relief. “I understand why I have to persist with a definite goal,” she said. “But sometimes I feel no hope for my life.”
Qiu said her parents worry for her safety as an activist. “But they still cannot accept that I’m a lesbian, and what I advocate,” she said. “They still believe that my sexuality can be changed.”
(Header image: Qiu Bai (second from the right) and her supporters protest against homophobic content in textbooks after a pretrial meeting at the First Intermediate People's Court of Beijing, Nov. 24, 2015. Courtesy of Qiu Bai)