CHANGSHA, China — Cuddled in the back corner of a teahouse, their fingers interlaced, Sun Wenlin and Hu Mingliang tell the story of how they found each other.
They connected online in 2014. They met. They knew.
“It was love at first sight,” Sun said.
“He was lonely, I was lonely, so we got together,” Hu said.
A year and a half later, they are very much still together. And now their love story may become a legal landmark.
Sun, who works for a tech company, and Hu, a security guard, want to get married. On their anniversary in June, they walked to the local civil affairs bureau to try to register. They were turned away.
Having survived the angst and isolation of growing up gay in central China, having fallen in love, they were not about to give up. So they decided to sue.
There have been calls for marriage equality in China, but theirs is the first suit accepted by a court — a point of pride for the couple and a milestone for the gay rights movement.
Though victory is far from certain — a hearing scheduled for Thursday was postponed on short notice — their case may pave the way for similar lawsuits. It has also started a national conversation about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Li Tingting, an activist who held an unofficial marriage ceremony with her partner last year, called the case “very inspirational” and a good step. “Compared to a decade ago, LGBT issues like gay marriage are getting way more attention,” she said.
Growing up in the Chinese heartland, Hu and Sun could have used gay role models — or just basic information about what it means, or could mean, to be gay.
Hu was born in 1979 and raised not far from Mao Zedong’s home town in a loving but traditional family. He knew he was attracted to men, but he did not know what “gay” meant. “I thought I was the only one in the world,” he said.
All of his early relationships were secret. Marriage was mandatory, so much so that even his lovers tried to set him up with girls.
In 2008, he told his mother he liked men. Her answer: “Are you insane?”
Sun, who is younger, had the benefit of the Internet. At 14, he found his way over China’s Great Firewall, discovering a vibrant gay community, as well as information about LGBT rights.
But he struggled to come out to his family. When he did, his father kicked him. “I punched him right back,” he said.
China decriminalized gay sex in the late 1990s, but stigma persists. Many people don’t discuss their gender or sexual identity with their family, and some feel it’s safer to “play it straight” at work.
Hu and Sun see their case as a public stand against that silence. “We have to be brave,” Sun said.
They also want to push the courts. Their suit is part of a nascent push to use Chinese law to advance gay rights. Amid an extraordinary crackdown on civil rights lawyers and their associates, the LGBT community is finding creative ways to get cases heard and to get people talking.
In 2014, a Chinese court ordered a clinic to compensate a man who underwent electroshock therapy designed to “cure” homosexuality. Since Chinese law does not protect people based on their gender or sexual identity, it was couched as a commercial dispute.
Although the award was small — about $550 — the impact was huge. News reports challenged the junk science and homophobic assumptions behind “gay conversion therapies.” The issue was later mentioned at a U.N. review of China’s torture record, prompting a Chinese official to acknowledge “real challenges” facing the country’s gay community.
In September, filmmaker Fan Popo sued a government body after his documentary about mothers and their gay and lesbian children was pulled from major websites. The case turned on disclosure rule, not gay rights, but by taking on the censors he called attention to the dearth of gay stories in television and film.
Another recent case challenged China’s Ministry of Education on textbooks that treated homosexuality as a “disorder.” The complaint resulted in a sit-down between LGBT activists and officials in a Beijing courthouse. While they met, a small group of supporters waited outside the court to share their experiences with members of the Chinese and foreign media.
The lawyer in that case, Wang Zhenyu, said the strategy seems to be working. “It’s a trend, and it’s a good one,” he said.
But taking on the system isn’t easy — or safe. Sun and Hu have been visited by police and encouraged, by phone, to drop the case, they said. Their first lawyer resigned because of pressure from his firm. Their new lawyer, Shi Fulong, fought hard to get the case accepted — only to see it postponed with two days notice over an apparent scheduling conflict for the defense.
“I’m angry,” Sun said.
“Why couldn’t they keep their promise?” Hu asked.
But if it means securing a future together, they will push ahead.
Over the past 10 years, they have seen their family members accept the idea that two men can meet and fall in love. This year, they will spend the Spring Festival holiday with Sun’s mother, who no longer considers him crazy and plans to welcome her prospective son-in-law by preparing all of his favorite dishes — with his preferred type of cooking oil.
Sun’s parents have also come around, he said. If they can change their views, can’t China?
Sipping the last of their tea, they said they plan to fight until it does.
“We’ve got a lifetime,” Sun said.
“Yes,” Hu said, nodding.
Gu Jinlu in Changsha and Xu Yangjingjing in Beijing contributed to this report.