In 2017, a Chinese university student sued the Jinan University Press over a mental health textbook that classified homosexuality as a “psychosexual disorder.” Although the country’s leading psychiatric association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 2, a district court in the eastern province of Jiangsu ruled in favor of the publisher, declaring the textbook’s classification of homosexuality not a “factual error,” but rather “cognitive dissonance.”
The plaintiff, a woman identified in court documents only as “Xixi,” has already filed an appeal. She’s not the first Chinese college student to turn to the courts in an effort to get homophobic content removed from the classroom: In 2015, another student sued the Ministry of Education for failing to address the issue of homopahobia in textbooks. Her suit was rejected, but at least one implicated publisher apologized and announced it would revise its materials.
Left: The cover of a mental health textbook; Right: Xixi prepares for an art exhibit. From The Paper
Although both legal battles ended in defeat, at least so far, the plaintiffs’ actions have helped bring increased attention to this important issue. The World Health Organization declassified “homosexuality” as a mental health disorder in 1990; the Chinese Psychiatric Association followed suit in 2001. For textbooks not only to disregard these decisions, but to actively contribute to the stigmatization of homosexuality as sexual deviancy or a psychosexual disorder, harks back to a time when discrimination against sexual minorities was perpetuated in the name of science — to say nothing of the harm it does to LGBT students.
In recent years, a growing number of scholars have argued that homophobic acts on campus should be examined through the institutional and environmental factors that make them possible. Under this model, support for LGBT students should not be limited to individual care, but should also extend to institutional change, including enacting campus-wide anti-discrimination policies, as well as adjusting teaching content to reflect sexual and gender diversity. In other words, removing discriminatory content from university textbooks is a systemic change well worth pursuing.
For their part, many teachers recognize that parroting the content found in these textbooks perpetuates homophobic views on campus and may exacerbate tensions between students and even faculty. Lessons rooted in homophobia give heterosexual students a warped view of homosexuality, leading to prejudice, discrimination, and bullying. Meanwhile, for LGBT students, having their identities disparaged in an authoritative source like a textbook can hinder their path to self-acceptance and put them at greater risk of developing actual mental health issues.
Yet teachers often have little say in the matter. Any refusal to teach prescribed course content or any statement in support of gay rights can result in discipline from often conservative school directors.
In this environment, heterosexuality is presented as the only legitimate identity; the needs of sexual minorities on campus are overlooked, their calls for equal treatment silenced. In 2016, administrative staff at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies interrogated a graduating senior and even threatened to revoke her diploma after she publicly proposed to her girlfriend on campus. In contrast, in 2017, Huazhong University of Science and Technology remained silent when two of its students held up signs that read “Keep homosexuality off university campuses.”
Institutional homophobia in colleges and universities is also reflected in the treatment of LGBT associations. According to a 2019 survey of LGBT+ associations at Chinese universities, these groups often find it difficult to carry out activities without interference. Schools have denied requests to register new associations, rescinded the registration of existing ones, sought to control the content and format of gatherings, rejected venue applications, and shut down events in progress.
All this is happening even as Chinese society as a whole grows significantly more tolerant toward sexual minorities. Last year, a spokesperson for the Chinese legislature publicly acknowledged a campaign to legalize same-sex marriage via the country’s new civil code, though these suggestions ultimately did not make it into the final text. And in 2020, a court in Beijing ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a case concerning the employment rights of transgender people.
Xixi’s lawyers pose for a photo in front of the court in Suqian, Jiangsu province, 2020. From The Paper
In this context, the conservative stance of university officials will result only in increased divisiveness and harm. A 2016 survey of 2,077 Chinese LGBT students found that only 11% were completely out of the closet on campus, while 23% reported that their grades had suffered as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Another 2019 survey, this one conducted by Beijing Normal University, showed that LGBTQ students were significantly more at risk of suffering mental health issues. Out of the 732 — mostly postsecondary — LGBTQ students who took part, 85% reported having had depression, while 40% had experienced suicidal thoughts.
The suppression of sexual minorities on campus also causes anxiety for LGBT teachers, who face difficulties teaching and discussing queer issues in the classroom. Some teachers have abandoned research projects on queer issues because they were worried that it would be hard to apply for funding or get published.
Ironically, these restrictions may end up damaging the international image and competitiveness of Chinese universities just as they’re climbing to the top of international rankings. These are important issues internationally, and if discrimination against sexual minorities continues, or teaching and discussions and research related to gender and sexuality cannot be carried out freely, it will doubtless impact the reputation of Chinese academia.
Seven years ago, when I was still teaching at a university in China, I mentioned homosexuality in a class on gender issues. Afterward, a female student waited at the door of the classroom and timidly asked: “Teacher, aren’t you afraid when you see gay people?” She had no idea the person standing in front of her was gay. At the time, I was still too afraid to come out. Allowing LGBT students and faculty to be themselves will benefit universities while stimulating greater critical thinking and creativity on campus. If that’s the kind of ivory tower we want to build, rejecting homophobic textbook content is a good place to start.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Zeliha Vergnes/E+/People Visual)