With the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in June, more than 20 countries across the Americas, Europe, and Africa now recognize unions between two men or two women. Yet not a single Asian nation has joined them. That may be about to change.
Movement within China’s court system indicates that the world’s most populous country could be the first in Asia to join the ranks.
A Chinese court has agreed to hear a case that could grant a same-sex couple the right to marry, Reuters reports.
Sun Wenlin, a 26-year-old gay man hoping to marry his partner, filed a complaint against the Changsha Furong District Civil Affairs Bureau, which denied his request to register the marriage, in Hunan province in December. Sun told Reuters that a local court agreed on Tuesday to hear his case.
Whether the court sides in Sun’s favor, even the decision to hear the case is a step toward LGBT equality.
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“In China, courts often reject politically sensitive cases, so the fact that the lawsuit is accepted signals some official willingness to address discrimination against LGBT people, which is encouraging,” Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. “But we will need to see if they actually win the case. If they do, it’d be a truly watershed moment for LGBT rights in China.”
China decriminalized homosexuality in the late 1990s and took it off the list of official mental disorders in 2001. Since then, the unofficial attitude toward homosexuality is what’s known as “the three nots” approach: “not encouraging, not discouraging, and not promoting.”
Sun states that after he filed the complaint, police attempted to investigate his home and approached family members. He told the Global Times that the police officers who came to his home emphasized the importance of having a child and carrying on the family name, reflecting the nation’s more traditional values. LGBT people living in China are banned from adopting a child and are not protected under antidiscrimination laws, according to international organization Out Right.
Sun is confident in his case, telling Reuters that China’s marriage law “says there is the freedom to marry and gender equality.” He also notes that national laws describe marriage as being between a “husband and a wife” rather than a “man and woman,” and that such labels could be applied to homosexual couples.