|Pride in Hong Kong. It is believed that as Hong Kong and Taiwan become more gay friendly so will the mainland|
THOSE who rely on China’s official news outlets may not realise that it has been a busy few days for gay rights in Greater China. The state-run media made little of the ruling from Taiwan’s highest court on May 24th that ordered parliament to enact a law giving gay couples the right to marry within two years. They also largely disregarded a narrower ruling two days later, from Hong Kong’s top court, that the government could not deny the partner of a gay official benefits that are enjoyed by the spouses of other civil servants (the pair had married in New Zealand, so far the only country east of Suez to allow gay couples to do so).
Ordinary Chinese, however, were not so muted. Weibo, China’s Twitter, lit up with millions of reactions, most of them positive. “Love disregards male or female, young or old, strong or weak,” wrote Zhang Xinyuan in a typical comment. Sun Wenlin, who sued in court in 2016 to have his marriage to his male partner registered by the local government in Hunan, a southern province (he lost), called on people to sign his online petition to legalise same-sex marriage (so far a modest 6,000 have signed up).
Taiwan and Hong Kong have frequent street protests, independent judges, openly gay celebrities and democratic constitutions. China has none of those things (and is trying to crush Hong Kong’s democratic impulses, too). Nonetheless, the rulings could make a difference in China because attitudes towards homosexuality are fluid and rules are changing. Gay characters and issues have started to appear more frequently on television and in films. A gay dating app called Blued has 27m users. A similar app for lesbians called Rela (with 5m users) was shut down this week. School textbooks continue to define homosexuality as a “disorder”, but last year a court in Beijing agreed to hear a case demanding that the Ministry of Education revise such teaching.
In 2016 Peking University’s sociology department carried out the largest survey of attitudes to, and among, homosexuals and other sexual minorities in China on behalf of the UN Development Programme. It found that most gay Chinese remain in the closet. Only 5% said they had come out at work and less than 15% had come out to their families. They also experience widespread discrimination, especially at home: 58% of respondents (gay and straight) agreed with the statement that gays are rejected by their families. Yet the notion that homosexuality is a disorder is almost universally scorned (only 2% supported it). And there is a big generation gap: 35% of those born before 1970 said they would reject a child who was gay; only 9% born after 1990 said that.
This does not mean Chinese attitudes to sexual minorities will soon catch up with those in more tolerant societies. Indeed, caution is the order of the day even in liberal Taiwan and Hong Kong. Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, supported gay marriage during her election campaign but has done nothing to advance the cause since her victory in 2016. In Hong Kong the high court ruled against the plaintiff in a separate case that would have struck down rules defining marriage for tax purposes as between a man and a woman.
Still, in an online debate about the Taiwan ruling, Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that whereas the majority of people under the age of 35 approve of gay marriage, the average age of members of China’s National People’s Congress (the rubber-stamp parliament that would have to change marriage laws) is 49. “Due to the influence of Taiwan, we may be 14 years away from legalising it,” she concluded. Wishful thinking, perhaps. But the walls of Chinese homophobia are slowly crumbling and the court rulings may knock a few more bricks away.
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Gay across the straits"