The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese textbooks are wildly homophobic. One student is fighting back.

Gay rights activists outside a Beijing courthouse on Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Qiu Bai was looking for information on human sexuality. What she found was homophobia disguised as fact.

Chinese textbooks called homosexuality a "disorder." Some suggested shock therapy as a “cure.” One book even dismissed the very possibility of same-sex love.

Outraged, the college student decided to challenge China's Ministry of Education in court. It’s a case she hopes will call attention to anti-gay bias and persuade Chinese officials to ban this type of language in state-published books.

"I have been fighting to make our voices heard for such a long time, and I finally have the opportunity,”  said Qiu, who uses a pseudonym, greeting supporters outside a Beijing courthouse on Tuesday.

She was joined by Xin Ying, executive director of the Beijing LGBT Center, and young activists who carried a rainbow flag and waved signs. “This could be a milestone case in the history of the gay rights movement,” Xin said.

Qiu's lawsuit is part of a nascent push to use China's courts to advance the fight for LGBT rights. Amid a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers and activists, campaigners are finding new ways to use Chinese law to call attention to discrimination.

In late 2014, a Chinese court ordered a clinic to compensate a man who underwent "gay conversion therapy" designed to literally shock him straight. Because China does not yet have a law that protects people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, the case was positioned as a commercial dispute.

The award was small — about $550 — but the proceedings helped put the issue of gay conversion therapy on the agenda; the case was mentioned at a U.N. review of China's torture record last week, prompting a Chinese representative to acknowledge "real challenges" facing China's LGBT community.

In September, Beijing-based filmmaker Fan Popo filed a lawsuit  against China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) after his documentary about Chinese mothers and their gay and lesbian children disappeared from major Web sites. He heard the censorship directive came from SAPPRFT. They denied it, so he sued to learn more.

Qiu first raised the textbook issue with school and provincial officials but was unsatisfied with the response, she said. Frustrated, she sent a letter to the Ministry of Education requesting more information. By law, they had 15 days to reply or to request more time. They did not, so she filed suit.

The Ministry of Education eventually complied with their request and on Tuesday Qiu and her lawyer, Wang Zhenyu, met with representatives of the Ministry of Education to discuss the portrayal of homosexuality in state-published textbooks.

The ministry is now looking into the issue, Wang said, calling it "a very good sign."

"Before they would not think about this as a problem, but now they started paying attention to this — after the suit, they had to face the problem," he said.

Whatever the outcome, activists said they are pleased to see what's sometimes dismissed as a private, personal matter discussed in a public way.

China decriminalized gay sex in the late 1990s, but stigma persists, as documented in a comprehensive 2014 report by the United Nations Development Program. Though China's big cities have thriving gay scenes, employment discrimination is rampant and many people stay closeted at work.

Discussing gender or sexual identity with family is often tough here, and there is little to no sex education at school. That makes this correcting of textbooks critical, experts said.

Li Yinhe, one of China's most-recognized sex researchers, said calling homosexuality a disease or disorder was "utterly wrong" and particularly worrying because students tend to assume that statements in textbooks are true.

Wei Tingting, one of the five Chinese feminists detained last spring, knows that firsthand. Wei said that as a student she was swayed by the type of "poisonous" pseudo-science that passes for fact in some textbooks — so much so that she once offered tips to help "cure" a friend.

"Because textbooks are seen as having authority, everyone, including the students, the teachers and the parents, believes them," she said.

Gu Jinglu reported from Beijing.