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A Chinese lesbian’s bid to protect LGBT rights

Qiu Bai (right) and her lawyer Wang Zhenyu (left) were surrounded by media at the gate of Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court on Nov. 24. Photo: Chunmei

The day finally came when Qiu Bai could have a face-to-face conversation with the Ministry of Education (MOE) on November 24, after a three-month wait since August 14 when the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court received Qiu Bai’s appeal against university textbooks describing homosexuality as a “psychological disorder that should be treated”.

While Qiu, a 21-year-old student of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong Province, hoped for a direct conversation with the MOE, her goal was to seek answers for questions which also concerned the rights of LGBTs in China: how could the textbooks make such mistakes; who should be responsible for this; and could these mistakes be corrected?

However, after the nearly two-hour meeting, Qiu didn’t receive a satisfactory answer. “I feel I have already taken a big step, but it is still far from finding a solution,” Qiu told Sino-US.com.

According to the director of the non-profit LGBT Rights Advocacy who uses the alias Yanzi, among the 90 textbooks in the library of Guangzhou, 42 described homosexuality as mental illness and roughly 50% said it should be treated.

“Even if there is only one textbook making such a mistake, it is really a serious problem. After all, it is a textbook,” Wang Zhenyu, Qiu Bai’s lawyer, told Sino-US.com.

And the problem of textbooks' wrong descriptions of homosexuality is not only in Guangdong province.

That homosexuality, which is not a mental illness but a sexual orientation, became an accepted notion worldwide many years ago. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the disorder list from the Sexual Deviancy section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. The World Health Organization listed homosexuality as a mental illness in 1977, and in 1990, a resolution was adopted to remove it.

In China, the third edition of psychiatric diagnosis standards released by the Chinese Psychiatric Association in 2001 also removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses.

The problem of textbooks' wrong descriptions of homosexuality is not only in Guangdong province. Some of the books shown to the public on Nov. 24 were taken from Beijing Normal University by volunteers. Photo by Chunmei

A long-waited conversation

Qiu Bai, which is not her real name, uses the pseudonym in order to avoid revealing her real identity to the public. Qiu’s frustrations began when she tried to find answers to questions about her own sexual orientation at the library, according to a report by the Xinhua News Agency in August. Almost every book she consulted categorized homosexuality as a mental disorder, with some even suggesting electroshock therapy to cure the “disease”, the report said.  

“At first I turned to the principal of my school and the library director, but there was no response,” Qiu said outside the court on Tuesday, “So I sued the provincial education department. But there was no result.”

On May 14, Qiu sent a letter to the MOE asking them to clarify what regulations were in place to oversee such content in the textbooks.

Having not received a response within 15 days, Qiu filed a lawsuit against the MOE at the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court on August 14.

“I think this problem should be eradicated from the root and attention should be paid by those who can really solve this issue,” Qiu said.

On September 10, Qiu received a letter from the MOE in response to her request to reveal information about the regulation of the textbooks, according to thepaper.cn.

The ministry’s response was that universities in China had decision-making power to write and choose the textbooks and the MOE was not responsible for supervising the writing and choosing of textbooks in Chinese universities, according to thepaper.cn.

As for the delay in the response, the MOE said it was because the worker at the mail office of the ministry delivered Qiu’s letter to the wrong office, “which was a procedural mistake rather than a deliberate act,” according to the reply letter from the MOE.

The MOE rejected Qiu’s appeal in the reply letter since “the Ministry had responded to the accuser’s request for information disclosure,” according to the reply letter.

However, Qiu still hoped for an “equal dialogue” with the ministry, as the reply letter from the MOE was not able to solve the core problem.

“There are no other better choices for a college student. Qiu, of course, made a right one,” Wang said. “With the help and arrangement of the Court, we had the opportunity to talk with the ministry”.

Although there were no “concrete” answers from the conversation in terms of questions like “why there are such mistakes in the textbooks”, and “will the ministry take steps to change the content”, Qiu was somehow comforted.

Suing the MOE put Qiu under a lot of pressure both from the school and her family, but it was mitigated by the support of friends and Chinese media.

The officials of the ministry who joined the conversation promised Qiu that they would give her a reply by phone as soon as possible.

“I don’t know when, but I believe they will,” Qiu said at the gate of the court.

Discrimination still the biggest challenge

Qiu’s move to take the ministry to court was also backed by Li Yinhe, a renowned Chinese sexologist and sociologist, who wrote an article advocating Chinese single women’s reproductive rights earlier in August.

“It’s a very reasonable choice, and should be encouraged,” she said in an interview with Sino-US.com, “Because only a piece of letter will never attract so much public attention.”

The biggest challenge for Chinese LGBTs was still social discrimination, said Li, and joint efforts were needed to improve the rights of LGBTs in China, not only from the media but also through fellowship activities organized by the LGBT centers.

“In China, clubs registered under the name of LGBT are illegal,” Li said, “Currently, Chinese LGBTs do not have a legal organization. Many of their activities are underground, so when pressures come, they have to face it individually.”


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