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China court hears case against gay-straight 'conversion therapy'

Man files lawsuit against Chongqing clinic which he says gave him electroshock therapy to get rid of homosexual thoughts



A Beijing court has heard the country's first case against gay-straight "conversion therapy", in what activists say could be a watershed case for the state's stance on homosexuality.

The plaintiff, a man who goes by the pseudonym Xiao Zhen, filed the lawsuit in March against a Chongqing clinic which he said administered electroshock therapy to rid him of homosexual thoughts.

About five members from the non-profit Beijing LGBT Centre staged a brief protest against conversion therapy outside the Haidian district people's court in northwestern Beijing at 9am on Thursday, before the case opened. They dressed in white doctors' and nurses' uniforms, and waved signs that read "homosexuals do not need treatment" and "support the Haidian court in fighting conversion therapy". One held a prop syringe; another a prop electricity generator.

"This is the first time that a Chinese court has seen a case against conversion therapy," said Xin Ying, the 28-year-old director of the organisation. She said the clinics were widespread in China and the centre had interviewed scores of Chinese LGBT people who had undergone therapy. None had said the treatments worked.

"In China, many people undergo conversion therapy because they experience pressure from their families," Xin said. "They lie to their parents and their doctor, saying that they were cured. But it's not because they were cured – it's because they didn't want to experience the pain of being treated."

The government stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental illness in 2001, but the stigma remains – many families, institutions, and even university psychology textbooks still treat it as a problem that needs to be fixed. The one-child policy, economic pressure and traditional cultural mores contribute to a mainstream culture in which parents put enormous pressure on their children to marry and have families of their own.

Chinese authorities do not recognise same-sex marriages or civil unions. When one LGBT activist in central China attempted to register a non-profit LGBT rights organisation last year, provincial authorities rejected the application on the grounds that homosexuality was "in violation of morals".

Gay-straight conversion therapies are also present in the US and Europe despite warnings from medical experts that their procedures lack medical justification and are more likely to harm patients than help them.

Zhang Rui, the 21-year-old head of psychological testing services at the Beijing LGBT centre, said she had undergone months of therapy as a first-year university student at the China Youth University for Political Sciences in Beijing before learning to embrace her sexuality. "I felt like I was two different people – outside, I would talk about boys, but deep down I knew I didn't like them," she said.

Even one of her psychology professors tried to convince her that homosexuality was a disorder. "One time after class, I showed him the DSM," she said, referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard psychology text in the US. "The teacher said, it doesn't matter what they teach you abroad – in China, homosexuality is an illness."

Lin Xianze, a 60-year-old public servant from the south-eastern province of Jiangxi, said he flew to Beijing to participate in the demonstration to support his 32-year-old son. "When he first told me [he was gay], I couldn't accept it," Lin said. Then he began researching homosexuality online, he said, and quickly changed his mind. "My child is not sick, so he doesn't need to be cured."

The court has yet to reach a verdict.

Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing The Guardian, Thursday 31 July 2014 12.59 BST