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“Psychological Disorder”: Chinese Student Sues Over Homophobic Textbook in Landmark Case

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A 20-year-old Chinese university student has sued academic book publisher Jinan University Press and its retail platform for calling homosexuality a “psychological disorder.” The case, which was heard in a court in the eastern province of Jiangsu on July 28 after being adjourned three times, is being seen as a landmark lawsuit regarding homophobic content in China.

The plaintiff, Xixi (西西), did not appear in court as a result of Covid-19 travel restrictions, however she did submit written opinions. “It has been three years since this case was filed. As a LGBTQ+ student, every time I see textbooks calling homosexuality a psychological disorder, I still feel deeply hurt,” she wrote. “Even though homosexuality is not classified as a mental illness in China anymore, there are still people producing false knowledge, therefore increasing the stigma around it.”

According to reports in Chinese media, Xixi felt she was not able to fit in at university even after joining LBGTQ+ events, and found herself often frustrated with open discriminatory remarks against gay people in classrooms. After she found out that a psychology textbook published by Jinan University Press described homosexuality as a disorder, she decided to take action to fight back.

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It is not easy to challenge textbooks in China, which are usually published by powerful publishing houses. After the case was filed in July 2017, Xixi and a group of volunteers collected evidence regarding the textbook to qualify the claim of “poor quality” in the lawsuit.

This is not the first time that LGBTQ+ communities have taken to the courts in order to address discriminatory language in Chinese textbooks. Back in 2015 and 2016, a college student named Qiu Bai took China’s Ministry of Education to court three times over its failure to respond to her complaints against anti-LGBTQ+ terms used in academic textbooks. Although the court heard the suit, Qiu’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

Activists have repeatedly attempted to use China’s courts to challenge homophobic policies and behavior in recent years. In 2014, a counseling center was successfully sued over its use of electroshock therapy in response to homosexuality. Earlier this year, judges ruled the Chinese ecommerce giant Dangdang.com’s behavior unlawful after the firing of an employee who underwent sex reassignment surgery. The last few years have also seen a rising number of people writing letters to lawmakers in support of legalizing same-sex marriage.

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A number of groups have also been looking to increase social media and public awareness on LGBTQ+ issues. Amid Pride month in June, ShanghaiPRIDE successfully held a series of diverse events addressing widespread systemic, public and employment discrimination. Last month, Beijing LGBT Center opened a Douyin account (on the Chinese version of TikTok) to better educate the public about such issues.

Whether Xixi will win this case remains to be seen — it’s unclear when a verdict will be announced — but the hearing of the case and the publicity it has received is nevertheless a significant step forward for gay rights in China.

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.