By Xu Yangjingjing and William Wan
BEIJING—Gay rights activists sued a counseling center Thursday for its offers to cure homosexuality through “gay conversion therapy” — the first lawsuit of its kind in a country where few rights and recognition exist for those who are gay.
Gay activists staged a protest outside a Beijing court before the case was heard, and said they hoped the unusual case would convince the medical community to change its regulations and practices of diagnosing homosexuality as a disorder.
Meanwhile, inside the court in northwest Beijing, a 30-year-old man from southern China said he suffered trauma when a counseling center in the city of Chongqing tried to cure his homosexuality through electric shock therapy and hypnosis. As part of his case, the man also sued Baidu.com, China’s largest search engine company, for false advertising by promoting the center’s services as a high-ranked response to the search terms “homosexual” and “homosexual treatment.”
a gay coulpe lighting a lantern for the Mid-Autumn Festival before their same-sex wedding ceremony in China’s Fujian province
In an interview outside the courthouse, the man asked to be referred as “Xiao Zhen” rather than his real name for fear of discrimination among his friends and relatives who don’t yet know he is gay. He said he has not told his parents about his lawsuit because he hopes to win the case and use it to soften their opposition to his homosexuality.
Offering “gay conversion therapy” is not uncommon among psychological counseling centers here. While such therapies are often promoted by conservative Christian groups in the West, in China the pressure more often than not comes from gay people’s peers and especially parents, activists said.
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Activists outside the courthouse said they hoped the trial might help persuade the medical community and society at large to change their attitude toward homosexuality.
Xiao Zhen said that after his parents found out he was gay last year, they refused to accept it. And when they saw an advertisement for gay therapy, they pressured him to seek help at the Chongqing Xinyupiaoxiang Counseling Center in February.
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On its Web site, the center claims to have successfully cured 10 patients in 2011 and seven in the first six months of 2012. Its program costs $80 per counseling session and $4,860 for a full-course treatment.
Representatives for the counseling center and a lawyer for Baidu declined to talk about the case and walked quickly away from reporters at the courthouse after the trial.
Gay Club In Beijing.
The Chongqing center explains its views on homosexuality on its Web site: “Any type of homosexuality is not really homosexuality. It’s just a wrong way of sexual release. They just need to be guided.”
Xiao said a counselor at the center laid him down on a bed and put him under hypnosis. The counselor told him to relax and imagine being intimate with another man. Then immediately after that thought, gave him an electric shock.
The shock itself was not strong, he said. “It was the fear of the shock that’s most unbearable. I was told that they would repeat this process many, many times.”
Ma Baoli gay activist and his team of gay friends have been educating people on disease prevention and control, especially on HIV and AIDS, via online and offline activities.
Homosexuality was deemed a crime in China until 1997 and considered a mental disease until 2001, when it was removed the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders, or CCDM-3. But the manual still classifies homosexuality and bisexuality as a “sexual orientation disorder,” which gay activists are lobbying to change.
The manual explains that while the behavior itself may not be abnormal, “some people might not want this or feel hesitant, and feel anxious, depressed and pain as a result. Some might seek treatment to change it.”
While Chinese society has grown more accepting in recent years towards homosexuality, conflicts remain because Chinese traditions put great emphasis on having children to continue the family bloodline. As a result, accounts abound of gay people keeping it a secret, so they can marry and have children.
China’s gay community, however, has also grown more vocal in the past five years, activists say, as attitudes toward sexual issues in the country have gradually changed.
Elsie Liao, right, and Mayu Yu a lesbian couple kiss in an alley outside the registry office where they asked to be married, before being turned away, in Beijing.
Among the protesters and supporters outside the courthouse Thursday was Lin Xianzhi, 60, whose son came out to her four years ago at the age of 28.
For years, Lin said he and his wife urged their son to get married. When his son finally told them he couldn’t get married because he was gay, “I felt the sky had fallen. We felt that everything we planned for him was destroyed,” said Lin, who worked as a civil servant in Jiangxi Province.
“We had heard about the word ‘gay’ before but thought it only existed in foreign countries. Not here, and certainly not in our family,” he said.
Elsie Liao, left, and Mayu Yu leave the registry office where they asked to be married, before being turned away, in Beijing on February 25, 2013.
Lin said they agonized over the news for a long time. “We also considered whether this could be treated; after all [China] has very advanced medical techniques now,” he said. But after reading more on the subject, they gradually began to come to terms with it and are now do outreach to other parents of children who are gay.