China Is Not Yet Ready to Ban Gay Conversion Therapy

Gay rights advocacy in China is gaining momentum this year.

When a district court in China missed the deadline this month to issue a ruling on a high-profile lawsuit against a gay conversion clinic, it alarmed the country’s gay rights activists, who were initially hopeful that the court’s willingness to hear the case meant the government might be opening up to China’s LGBTQ community.

The lawsuit, filed in May with Beijing’s Haidian District Court, has now exceeded the six-month deadline usually allotted to Chinese courts hearing civil cases. The judge in charge of the lawsuit told the news publication China RealTime that the decision had not been delayed and would be released soon.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, a 30-year-old Beijing resident who identifies himself as Xiao Zhen, accused a psychiatric clinic in Chongqing, located in China’s southwest, of exceeding the limits of its license by offering a program to “cure" homosexuality. The lawsuit also targets Chinese search engine Baidu for advertising the clinic on its website.

Xiao Zhen said he visited the clinic earlier this year at the request of his parents after he told them he was gay. He said his parents urged him to attend the clinic after they found an advertisement for it on Baidu.

The clinic promised to cure homosexuality by using a mix of traditional Chinese smoke therapy, hypnosis, electrolysis and emotional diversion therapy. The clinic charged 500 yuan (about $81) for an initial session and the entire program cost 30,000 yuan ($4,900).

When Xiao Zhen arrived at the clinic for the initial session, he said he was told to lie down on a couch where a staff member placed electrodes on his hands. After 20 minutes of hypnosis, he was told to think about having sex with a man and wiggle his finger when he felt aroused. When Xiao Zhen moved his hand, he was given an electric shock.

He told China RealTime: ““I had no idea it was coming, so I literally jumped up off the couch and asked the doctor if this is what the rest of the therapy would entail.”

According to China RealTime, the doctor told him the full treatment would include 30 sessions, each involving three or four shocks.

“I thought this process probably won’t make me straight, but it could make me crazy,” Xiao Zhen said.

Xiao Zhen left the clinic immediately, and after doing some research, found that the clinic was only licensed to provide counseling or psychiatric treatment, not physical treatment. With encouragement from his friends, Xiao Zhen filed a lawsuit against the clinic.

The lawsuit also alleges that the clinic cannot claim to “cure” homosexuality because homosexuality is not considered a mental illness.

Homosexuality was removed from China’s list of mental illnesses as recently as 2001. It was only in 1997 that the Chinese government decriminalized homosexuality. However, gay marriage is still illegal in the country.

Gay rights advocacy in China has gained momentum this year. In March, a 19-year-old activist sued the government for denying his request to register his gay rights organization as an NGO, which would allow it to receive donations and tax exemptions. According to the BBC:

"In a written reply to him, the local government said homosexuality had no place in Chinese traditional culture and 'the building of spiritual civilization'—a catchphrase in modern China for what many believe is the party's indoctrination."

Grassroots activists are also demanding greater tolerance on college campuses. In September, 112 Chinese universities received letters demanding that campuses create a more welcoming atmosphere for LGBTQ students and allow LGBTQ clubs and communities in the universities.

The action followed a report by the Guangzhou-based Gay and Lesbian Campus Association that found 40 percent of references to homosexuality in Chinese textbooks call it a mental illness.

Richard Burger, creator of the Peking Duck blog and author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, explained the stigma around homosexuality in China in a post on his website:

"Homosexuality remains stigmatized throughout most of the country, partly because, as Fei Wang points out, it clashes with the long-held belief in China that children must marry and continue the family line by bearing offspring."

The stigma in China mirrors in many ways the opposition to gay rights in the United States, where some ultra-conservative groups consider homosexuality to be unnatural and believe a person can be cured of being gay. In 2006, it was revealed that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s husband practices reparative therapy, a procedure that promises to turn gay people straight, at his Christian counseling center.

According the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are nearly 70 therapists in the United States who advertise that they practice conversion therapy for gay people. The SPLC says that, “People who have undergone conversion therapy have reported increased anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal ideation.”

Earlier this month, the National Center for Lesbian Rights testified at the United Nations that unwanted gay conversion therapy for children is equivalent to torture and child abuse, asking the UN Committee Against Torture to ban any attempts to change a minor's sexual orientation or gender identity. 

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